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Call Me Covered

akeefe's picture

Call Me Covered

I judge books by their covers. I can't help it. If a book has a really interesting cover, I always flip though a few pages, read the synopsis, really consider it, and with the amount of money that is currently spent on cover art every year, that makes sense. The experience of a book begins with the cover. For me, Moby-Dick didn't start with "Call me Ishmeal." or with the Extracts or the Etymology. Moby-Dick started with a black and white, arching whale. I decided that I wanted to think more about the cover art of Moby-Dick, and cover art in general. So, I started talking to people, mostly college students, but some professors too. I searched for resources online. Here's what I found out. First, Paul Grobstein's forms of storytelling are an excellent way to express how types of cover art function. Secondly, not only did every person I talked to say that they do, in fact judge books by their covers, but the most effective covers are the one's that were subjective enough to be judged.

I want to start by explaining the cover art that people have told me they find least effective. Essentially, I want to explain what subjective cover art is not, before I try to go into what it is. The first thing that subjective cover art is not can be described in Grobstein's language as a Non-narrative Foundational Story. These stories are characterized by a strict system of unchanging order, and cover art, that functions similarly, tells you everything you need to know about the book before you read it. There's two half-naked man on the cover, in melodramatic lighting, swooning a dark haired girl in a low cut dress, while a slightly slanted hour glass hovers above their heads We know it's a romance novel. Both men will fall passionately in love with the vixen. Their will be blood shed, plots concocted, unrelenting passion, sorrow, and sex...

Get the picture? Most people I talked to said that they hated looking at a cover, and not needing to go any farther. This is not to say that Non-narrative foundational covers don't have their uses; they are just limited. I'm pretty sure just about every college student can recognize the Moby-Dick cover below. A CliffsNotes. As readers, we know what we're getting into when we see this. CliffsNotes will give us the summary, themes, quotes, and characters of any book they put out. The overall order of it doesn't change.


A Narrative Foundational Story is built upon the context of what has past. These types of covers build directly upon an interpretation of the piece. The problem with this, most people told me, was that these covers color the way they perceive the book. It’s sort of like when you go to see the movie of a book you really liked, and are disappointed because your favorite character looks nothing like, sounds nothing like the person you created in your head.

The next Moby-Dick cover is one that I would classify as such. It’s from a 1990’s children’s movie called The Adventures of Moby Dick. I hate to disappoint those of you that

have not yet read Moby-Dick, but the portrayal on the cover doesn’t match the text at all. It does however, seem to match the movie that was made very well. I have included this example because of it’s portrayal of Moby Dick as the obvious hero, and Captain Ahab, in the boat at the back, as the obvious villain. This cover doesn’t leave room for any sort of subjective interpretation. The second cover is from Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I really think that this is the best example of the flaws of narrative foundational covers out there. Kafka never explicitly stated what kind of giant insect Gregor Samsa turns into (Rourke 1). However, over time thanks to translations that interpret fluidly and graphic designers that interpreted the text strictly, we often see a giant cockroach on the cover. This means that the reader will enter with a preconceived notion of what Gregor will look like in his transformed state.

     The MetamorphosisThe Metamorphosis


People also seemed to be hostile to the idea that a cover would be completely random chance as in an Anti-story, where all things are left to chance and randomness. Apparently, the thought that a picture I took of French fries in a Greek restaurant could appear as the cover of Moby-Dick, simply because it was pulled out of a hat at the publishing house, doesn’t go over too well.


#4 Moby-Dick SatireMoby-Dick Satire

I think that the most effective story to use when creating cover art is an Emergent story. Basically, an emergent story is sort of like evolution. The goal is to create new things. They may grow out of things that already exist, but you don’t try to just repeat what has already proven itself to be successful. Now let me walk you through how I came to this decision.

Up until now I haven’t really mentioned any of that “online research” I mentioned in my introduction. When I went online, and typed “Book Covers” into my search engine, I was overwhelmed by blogs. They rolled on for pages, mostly on the topic of which book covers that individuals liked or hated. What is significant about the blog form in this case is that most of them were individual, or housed a forum for the opinions of individuals. They didn’t even pretend to be objective; it was all personal feeling. They also didn’t really deal with the cover in relation to the text; they were a piece of art in themselves. One blog belonging to Carolita Johnson show cased a hand-made Moby-Dick cover, crafted “when the ugly cover it (the book) came with got on my nerves one too many times” (Johnson 1).

I believe that the link between blogs and book covers is no accident. When in discussion, one of themes that was repeated throughout was that effective cover art has an expectancy of subjectivity. The cover isn't too specific, but does give you a taste of the work to follow. The word that came up most often was "symbolic." The cover is symbolic of the work, not the same, and it's meaning and scope is revealed as you read and digest. There's a practical effect to this as well. If the cover art isn't too defining than it will simply accommodate a wider range of tastes and interpretation. It is due to this expectancy of subjectivity, that not only allow us to deal with book covers as new piece art in and of itself, but also as an evolution of the book it surrounds, that I would classify the most effective book covers as emergent.

In my research, I came across many possible covers for Moby-Dick. However these covers by Bill Sienkiewicz provided me with the most useful examples of emergent covers. I will also add that when I asked, both people that had read Moby-Dick and those who hadn't, which cover they preferred that a Sienkiewicz cover was chosen almost every time. Sienkiewicz is graphic novelist known here for his adaptation of Moby-Dick (Sienkiewicz 1) His use of collage is found throughout his work on Moby-Dick and his work in general (Sienkiewicz 1). I personally find collage perfect for a piece like Moby-Dick that blends together narrative, dramatic form, anatomy, and a shifting speaker.




In my opinion, these covers create more cracks for interpretations to fall into than the ones I‘ve presented you with thus far. So go out, judge a book by it's cover. It's art that deserves attention. If you happen to find a cover that you really love, please post it below; add to my paper. Who knows, an interest in covers might even lead you to few good books.


Works Cited

Johnson, Carolita. "Moby on the Subway" Cited 24 Feb. 2008.


Rourke, Lee. "What Goes into a Great Translation," Updated 7 June 2007

Cited 24 Feb. 2008.


Sienkiewicz, Bill. "Bill Sienkiewicz," Cited 24 Feb. 2008.







# 6 and #7





Anne Dalke's picture

covering art

What's interesting here, of course, is your willingness to experiment in expanding our various ways of reading different kinds of stories into various ways of reading the covers of those stories: what expectations are set by the covers of the books we read? To what degree do they invite us in?

I see you arguing that the best covers allow for a certain range of subjectivity: they are not too directive, but they are also not too open--that way they invite a spectrum of readers, into a spectrum of interpretations. Using the language of "non-narrative foundational, "narrative foundational," "emergence" and "anti-story" gives you a good way of cataloguing these differences. And I think your final suggestion, that a collage makes a perfect cover for Moby-Dick, evoking its blend of various narrative forms, is right on the money.

My comments on your project are small ones, mostly adjustments and refinements. I'd like to know, right up, what you mean by "subjective"--I don't understand how any art cannot be subjective, cannot allow for some range of interpretation. Surely just the act of converting an image into words involves an interpretive--that is, a subjective--act?

I'm especially interested in the meaning of "subjective" when you juxtapose it, towards the end of your paper, with "symbolic." You seem to use the two terms as if they are analogous, though to my mind a "symbol" has less range--it points to a specific meaning, and in that way it works much more like a "narrative foundation story" than an emergence one. A cross would be a symbol; what it symbolizes is pretty clear. Ahab's problem (to just apply this idea) might be described as his mistaking a biological creature, the whale, for a symbol, interpreting it as a representative of all evil. In contrast, Ishmael's attitude might be called anti- (or un-) symbolic--he keeps a range of meanings in play, doesn't reduce the whale to one interpretation.

Speaking of range--the tone of your essay makes it quite readable; both your opening and your conclusion are clever, and the whole thing feels as though you are really talking to me. There are points, though, where you get just a little too talky, and I have trouble following what you are saying. You need transitions, and sometimes you need more specifics--not "apparently, people thought," but the details of what actual people thought (and said). It's not that they are hostile "where all things are left to chance and randomness," but rather, quite specifically, "where the cover gives no direction, no clue as to what is inside...."

You'll see that I was able to get most of your images loaded; if you can send me the full URLs for the ones we're still missing, I can add those to. In the meantime, here's one that interests me, because it evocatively/provocatively combines the human and the animal...