book covers


painted faces

daya dissanayale

"Aulus Gellius, following Cicero and Quintilian, says of the various styles in poetry and prose that each of them can be made more distinguished by chaste and modest adornment, but becomes mere mummery when 'made up and bedaubed'. And Lucian, following Plato and Isocrates, compares the use of poetic ornament in history to dressing an athlete up like a harlot and painting his face." Thus wrote Timothy Peter Wiseman, in 'Clio's Cosmetics: Three Studies in Greco-Roman Literature'.

Wiseman was referring to stylistic adornment in poetry and historiography in ancient Greece and Rome.

Today we have a situation where sometimes we find book covers dressed up to look like harlots. We cannot blame the authors or the publishers, in this intensely competitive world of make-believe, where there are no rules in the battle of marketing. Today marketing is selling by any means, selling what the consumer does not want, and making a profit out of it. It is no longer a buyer's market for any product or service.

The food we eat is what the agri-business industry wants us to eat, the clothes we wear are what the garment and fashion industry wants us to wear, and in the same manner the books we have to read are what the publishers want us to read.

That is what we realize as we walk around the International Book Fair at the BMICH. Since the publishing industry does not go for heavy advertising on audio-visual media and even in the print media, they have to depend on outer appearance of their books, for sale at a book fair, where they have to tempt the visitors for impulse buying, .

We are all victims of impulse buying, if we pause for a moment to think about all the unwanted things in our houses, which we have never used, just purchased on impulse. And when we look at our bookshelves we find so many books that we have never read, or read to the end. yet we keep on buying, and the book publishers keep on selling. And we are enticed and entrapped by the book cover.

Our ancient ola leaf books had wooden book covers for protection of the fragile ola leaves, and since these books were not mass produced, even the covers were handcrafted. It was the same in Europe, hand written books had handcrafted covers, often of leather. With the arrival of the printing press, when books began to be printed on a large scale, still they were sold as loose leaves which the buyer could get bound from a bookbinder. William Pickering in the 1820s began marketing books in a uniform binding in leather or cloth. To protect these covers, specially when it was made of silk, dust jackets were introduced. The oldest surviving dust jacket from an 1830 'Friendship's Offering' is now in the Oxford's Bodleian Library. The dust jacket was meant to be thrown away. By 1920s the dust jacket was having its own important place on the book, as it changed from just providing protection to become an important marketing tool.

There are many obstacles on the way in selecting books. One is the cosmetic appearance of the book cover, and the blurbs on the back, and the name of the author. In the world of book publishing, there are many internationally best selling authors who are selling their name. There are authors who get others to do contract writing for them, just like the Pharmaceutical industry big names get small companies to do contract manufacturing for them.

The cover design has become a major skill today. However much some readers and even writers would say that the cover does not make a difference, we see how it makes that difference, as we walk around the book fair. There are cover designers, who still remain faithful to the story inside the covers, and who will design their cover to support the title of the book and to guide us in our selection.

Book covers are still very important, and there is even an annual State Award for the best book cover. It is never announced if the book cover is selected based on its artistic and creative merit only, or if the judges also read the book from cover to cover and consider the relevance of the cover to its contents.

We remember the times when the book covers were very plain, just the title of the book and the author. And then there were the 'Lihini' books which had the same standard cover on all books, and still the books had a great demand.

Since there is nothing new that any of us could create, in literature, art, music or any art form, it is now near impossible to produce something that had never appeared before. It applies to book covers too. One example given by 'The Caustic Cover Critic' is the almost identical image of a woman in a long dress holding a bird cage in her left hand found on 12 different novels by different authors.

Tim Kreider, professional designer, writing to the New Yorker about book covers says, "Two irreversible trends are at fault here, neither of which can be altered by even a really persuasive essay. One is that the illustrated book cover, like painted movie posters or newspaper comics, is pretty much dead. Fonts, stock photos, and Photoshop are cheaper than commissioning illustrations. With the imminence of Kindles and e-readers, this is all moot anyway; soon enough, book covers, like album covers before them—like albums themselves, or sheet music for popular songs, or dance cards—will be a quaint, old-timey thing you have to explain to the uninterested young, and there’ll be one fewer excuse to strike up conversations with pretty strangers on the subway."

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