"Never judge a book by its cover."
Well, okay. We've all heard this admonition, and I suppose I agree with it. Except when I don't. It's not that I would choose to read or reject a book solely based on its cover art, but I admittedly include the cover as an element to consider. When we are children, a book's cover is the first, perhaps only, window into the story we may be delving into; picture books draw us in with their cover artwork. When I reached the age of reading chapter books, I found the covers of the "Hardy Boys" series helpful in establishing settings and characters (Joe was blonde, Frank was dark-haired ... which brings up a whole question of parentage, but that's for another time). I learned at a young age that book covers don't necessarily define a story, but they provide enticing clues, as well as potentially presenting original and intriguing art.
One of the first covers whose image still lives in my memory is the 1978 Ballantine edition of Tolkien's The Hobbit. The art is not spectacular, but it represents a specific moment in the story when Bilbo is floating on a barrel down the river. It succeeded in transporting me to Middle-earth, while causing me to question my own imaginings of the character of Bilbo; I had pictured the hobbit as more dwarf-like, while the drawing showed him as small but lithe. I began to understand that everyone's interpretations of what they read can be remarkably unique and individual.
As I grew older and found myself enjoying Agatha
Christie mysteries, the covers of the Hercule Poirot novels presented simple yet fun designs. They often consisted of stylized drawings of several objects from the story, either clues or red herrings, along with an artist rendition of Poirot himself. Because Christie is the most published author in the English language, the same book was published many times with different covers and often different titles (American publishers feared that the British titles would be too obscure, offensive, confusing, or simply not marketable.) Is Hickory Dickory Death really a better title than Hickory Dickory Dock? I can't say, but I do know that the covers keep me interested.
However, without a doubt the best covers are those of vintage science-fiction books, of which we have many at both bookstores. These come from a time over fifty years ago when artists were hired to create the kinds of covers that would draw people in and get the book sold. Some are beautiful, some are schlocky, some are creepy, some are just weird, and some are hilarious. But they are never dull. And that's more than I can say for modern book covers. Granted, a great deal of effort (and money) still goes into creating cover art, with designs and fonts and colors best representing the story and the author. But as I look around the bookstore at some recent releases, my response to many of the covers is a resounding "Meh." Few of these covers are original or interesting, nor do they inspire a desire to read the book, which really is the primary purpose of cover art. They're not unattractive; they are simply boring. Perhaps as the cultural tide slowly turns away from e-books and back to actual, physical books, more care will once again be taken with creating the "full package": a work of literature enclosed within a work of art.