Graphically Challenged: Why Covers do Matter

Posted in Books, Unsung Feature by Joie on December 8, 2008


Left (Design: David Pearson), Right (Design: Ralph Steadman)


Better famously known through its abridged snippets scattered among the master theses and PhD dissertations in collegiate dungeons around the world, the Ur-essay of all aesthetic manifestos still retains is ever mystical aura. A perpetually renewable source of enlightenment, Walter Benjamin, as pop historian Howard Hampton, rightfully notes, “has become become a convenient, all-points totem, one who blessing and validation are sought through the offerings of a host of supplicants…in this shopworn, once-upon-a-time-academe form, he stands for an indivisible synthesis of blissful disenchantment and unshaken theoretical faith.” Despite Benjamin’s dying belief that the age of Fascist fetishization has passed, that we should acquire a richer visual literacy unfettered by commerce and prestige, he couldn’t have imagined the marketing battle between publishing rivals for his 1935’s “Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (a second, much longer variant from the famous, widely circulating first edition, “…Age of Mechanical Reproduction).

Two editions released and refurnished this year, conspicuously with dissimilar translations in each, but ultimately (over)determined by their physical allure, their pulpy facade vulnerably exposed to the discerning consumer. Which book will be adopted, which book will be put to sleep in the inventory storeroom?

Intellectually-speaking, means I’m here for the “official” version (the right side, by Harvard University Press), this newly extended essay (“Reproducibility”) ventures into more prodigious discussion of film as a medium that can liberate art from its confined spaces to even more confining spaces, from museums to bedrooms, from Dennis Hopper to Joe the Plumber. Despite its fawning, tasteful cover, I’m sold only because it will bear me future fruits of critical rigor, as it attempts to say something about the insidious nature of repetition with the floating cartoon heads of the dead Frankfurt bookworm.  Thanks to Kevin from HUP for pointing out that the cover art was an original from Ralph Steadman, known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson.

To the left side is something else altogether, a dilapidated curiosity shop that rings true to its title, a familiar version, like a baby blanket, I’ve encountered so many times in all my undergraduate classes. Yet, it keeps me coming for more, with the outside matching the thematic aspirations of its insides. Radical to the end, old-fashioned only by appearance, the design (for “Reproduction”) captures the author as a brand, the modern equivalent of aura, a work of art itself thanks to the printing revolution. Replicating the experience of reading itself, as the same book is multiplied in the mind as many, the trompe-l’oeil of a cover unveils the material act of holding a book, with its stubborn dimensions and the endless row of spines awaiting at the library shelves. It thrives on minimalist simplicity and renews the reader’s interest in the cosmopolitan writer’s prismatic observations, contradictory projections, and his weary, utopian voice, alive through the incantation of reading, albeit still full of glory and melancholy.

Penguin Series

Penguin's Great Ideas Series, all covers designed by David Pearson

Like many unsung anti-heroes of any industry, the cover designer’s work exhibits the same fate as Poe’s purloined letter, open to the world, but everyone only noticing the “author,” (the director) the one whose existence rests on a prominent name, horizontally slashed on the surface. The success of one does not mark the success of the other, but the failure of either will lead both to the trenches of obscurity. In a parallel manner, taking a quick browse through the Criterion Collection yields an even more difficult decision. Since the auteur mantle is already a given, the real question lies in the search for the other auteur, literally, the winning poster child on the DVD.

In this post, my initial interest of these two books, sharing the same author, but lacking identical appeal, will now funnel down to a self-motivated promotion of graphic extraordinaire, industry-secret typographer, David Pearson, who is the executive designer of the Penguin Classic branch, which includes this new edition of Benjamin’s essay in novella form as part of their GREAT IDEAS series. Surgically beautifying the so-called masterworks of literature, Pearson may have already carved his own legacy among the great morticians of cultural remains.

Great Books Series

Great Books Series

History of Logos

History of Logos