Ugly Covers for Great Books

Gabe Habash -- July 19th, 2012

Scribner just released this gorgeous new edition of A Farewell to Arms, complete with all of Hemingway’s alternate endings. If you ask most people with eyes, they’ll tell you the cover is a significant upgrade from the other two most common editions (here and here). So–what other books need saving from their old jackets? Here are six great books with spotty cover histories and solutions for those…ahem…aesthetically challenged titles.

Click any of the jackets below for higher-res.

1. Evelyn Waugh

These unappealing cartoon drawings could be trying to convey the prodding and farcical elements of Waugh’s novels, illustrated representations of Waugh’s playful personality, which, as Nancy Mitford stated, was as follows: “What nobody remembers about Evelyn is that everything with him was jokes. Everything.”

But I’m not buying it. The style (which was also used, among others, for Scoop and Vile Bodies) don’t make me want to read any of them–the fonts are all over the place and nothing about the color or composition is particularly pleasing. It’s also curious that the green-shirted, tweed-suited figure seems to appear on both the Brideshead cover and the Handful of Dust cover.

Though I’m not wild about the Dust cover, let’s take these two instead:


2. William Faulkner

Ah, yes. Those distinguished gold-bronze editions with spines the glare out from across the room. I’m not sure Faulkner’s had a good cover printed since he was alive. The photos aren’t bad, and I’m actually pretty fond of the red sky, but goldbronze doesn’t look good with anything.

Worse for Faulkner: his books were published with a new look recently and look like this:

The background and title on the bottom half clashes with the top-half photo (the purple/photo of the ground combo for Sound is particularly bad), but the real issue here is the cheap frame box around Faulkner’s name. I think that box was a menu button option on the first version of iDVD. Even the goldenbronze of the older editions is better than the box.

It would be nice to see Sound get rereleased with its original cover (like the Hemingway rerelease), but instead I’ll go with the pulpier covers, which contrast nicely with Faulkner’s serious Biblical-gothic operas.


3. Vladimir Nabokov

Thank you, John Gall. Thank you for saving my favorite writer from those terrible faded covers and giving him a new line of covers that are absolutely gorgeous. Thank you, thank you.


4. In Cold Blood

In one of the more neurotic corners of my book buying history sits Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I put off buying the book for years because of the cover above, holding out for some new edition that didn’t feature the sinister green half-face and the boring water tower photo. When it was announced that new covers were being done for Capote’s books to coincide with the release of his e-books, I had my fingers crossed that In Cold Blood‘s cover would be better. I was not disappointed–when I found the new edition in Barnes & Noble it was like a puzzle piece fitting into place. The wait was worth it.


5. The Brontës

When I was a kid and picture day approached, I took the photo form home for my mom to fill out. On the form, there was a little box to check off for “Star Appeal.” I don’t remember the language the photography company used to explain Star Appeal, but the idea was to make the photo of your head look more glamorous for some additional charge. One year my mom got it for me, and when I sat down to get my picture taken, the photographer looked at my form and slid a thick filter over the lens. When my pictures came back, I opened the envelope and looked at myself. It appeared as if someone had slapped a gob of Vaseline over the lens. In the yearbook, next to the fine-looking, normal photos of my classmates, there was my fuzzy, hazy photo–I looked like some ’30s starlet who demands to be shot from the good side. Simultaneously, Star Appeal branded me as vain while also making me look worse.

Imagine my horror when I came across this cover:

It was like looking into a mirror–I saw in the Wuthering Heights cover the same far-off glaze brought about by Star Appeal. The pained trying to look beautiful expression is one step away from Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? If the ugly book didn’t make me so disgusted with it and with myself, I probably would’ve bought it out of pity.

I’m not providing any solutions here to the bad covers the Brontës have been cursed with (which either seem to be runny watercolors or hip new covers [JANE EYRE FIREBALL!]). Like in old villages when a caught thief would get his hand nailed to the pole in the center of town, I’m just posting the covers as examples so that we may learn from our mistakes.



6. Heart of Darkness

I just wanted to call your attention to the most literal cover of all time.

11 thoughts on “Ugly Covers for Great Books

  1. david v.

    Seems like you have issues with Vintage International.
    Certain publishing houses are pretty good about making consistently attractive editions: like NYRB for instance. And they all match too!
    I happen to like the Back Bay Books editions of Evelyn Waugh’s stuff. They’re cute and zany like the novels themselves, I have a few of them. The covers offered as alternatives have a more sophisticated feel that is misleading. It’s a pet-peeve of mine that satire cannot be left to be zany, and has to go through a process of sophistication to become “classic.”

  2. Joel

    I’ve noticed this before. I think most/all of these are not the original cover from the book’s hardback. These are reissues of classics and as such probably have near-zero marketing budgets, and for the most part are sold on their legacy and buzz, not by attracting a buyer’s interest with a well-designed cover.

  3. Adrian Morgan

    The Faulkner Covers would truly new and inspiring when they first came out. These styles and marketing needs are decades apart. I’d have liked to have seen what you were wearing in the late 80s Mr. Habash. Shame on you for these cheap potshots.

  4. Joan Kane Nichols

    Love the new Pale Fire cover.

    Also love the old In Cold Blood cover. Haunting photo captures place and theme.

    The Wuthering Heights cover makes it look like a Romance novel, no doubt the marketer’s intention.

  5. Joey

    I kind of like the Waugh covers…they remind me of 101 Dalmatians-era Disney. I’m not going to argue for the strange multiple-font usage, but I like the drawings.

    The pulpy “As I Lay Dying” and the newer Nabokovs are my favorites though.

  6. carlos

    DFW infinite jest
    hitchens – god is not great
    gabrielle hamilton – blood bones & butter (not bad but could ve been a knock out book cover)

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