Books by their covers

March 5th, 2016

There’s nothing quite like the first sight of your book cover—and the artwork that a designer has chosen for it. It’s like catching an unexpected reflection in a mirror and, slightly surprised, thinking, ‘Oh! That’s me?’

I’d be a very ho-hum book designer myself. If I try to think of images for my own covers, my brain plods down distressingly literal paths. When I sent off the finalized manuscript for Standard candles, I half expected that the cover would come back with—oh, I don’t know, something like a picture of the Andromeda galaxy taken through the Hubble telescope. After all, it’s a book inspired by the science of cosmology.

(Side-track: Don’t you love the anecdote about the advertising exec who was shown a picture of the Andromeda galaxy. “Terrific,” he said enthusiastically. “Could we get it from another angle?”)

Alan Brownoff, the U of A Press’s insightful book designer, always does find another angle. For this manuscript, he hunted down a piece of digital art by Ramón Pasternak, an artist and musician from Chile who bases his works on fractal equations. Ramón doesn’t give titles to his creations. He says he doesn’t want to direct how a viewer will perceive them; he’s more interested in the emotions that a given piece could provoke instead of triggering our usual tendency to apophenia—our human compulsion to find familiar pictures in random data: “I see a bear.”

But fractal patterns abound through nature, and when I saw Alan’s cover design, I thought, “Of course!” Because to me, incurably apopheniac, this image suggests a pixilated image of stars at various distances. You don’t have to see stars in it. Maybe you’d see tunnels or a city map. But I bet that you’d come up with some sort of sense of mysterious dimensions, things that are similar and yet not quite the same. Which fits. The idea of trying to imagine different kinds of distance—personal as well as physical—is important to my concept of the book. So, whatever you make of it, Ramón’s image makes its own, separate comment on what’s inside.

This is my fifth book with the U of A Press, and every cover has given me the same kind of lovely startle. For example, I had expected that The Office Tower Tales would come back with some sort of urban skyline on the cover. But when I saw the drawing of the black-billed magpie, I was staggered by how perfect it was. City bird, natterer, totem animal of my particular city, ushering the stories in like a Black Rod to Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls—magpie is the perfect image to introduce readers to this book.

Then there is the tangled red ball from Lyndal Osborne’s print “High Voltage” that electrifies the cover of The Occupied World. Or the elegiac painting by Ted Godwin that designer Virginia Penny  found for Memory’s Daughter – it caught at my heart to realize it was called “Last Tartan for Will.” What a special, extra connection for a book in memory of my Scottish father, William!

And that’s the word for good book covers—connection. Not ‘picturing’ the contents like the label on a can, but helping to make links between different forms of communication, visual and verbal, that in turn help a reader to connect with what’s inside.

 

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