If you like pretty books, then prepare to drool in an unsightly but endearing way. There’s nothing more appealing to a cover design nut than a book about cover designs, especially one that has such a pretty design itself. The publication of a book exploring the various physical manifestations of Austen’s novels was probably only a matter of time, considering how many editions of her works have been published in the two hundred years since she first began writing.
And Austen, with her wide appeal – from literary critics, to passionate fans, to the casual reader – is perhaps one of the most interesting topics when considering the marketing of classic books to readers from all walks of life. Is she chick-lit? Satire? A nostalgic portrait of a pre-industrialised Britain? High-brow literature, or the eighteenth century equivalent of the Harlequin romance?
One thing that immediately becomes clear when flipping through Jane Austen Cover To Cover (this book can be flipped through casually, although I of course read it – forgive me – cover to cover) is that Austen’s work has, at one time or another, been forced into all of these costumes, and more. The variations in cover art over a period of two hundred years reveal a lot about our changing tastes, reading habits, and how we think of ourselves as a society.
Jane Austen Cover To Cover may be quite a good resource for beginning a thorough examination of Austen cover art. For the most part, it goes through images chronologically, but also occasionally switches to thematic groupings (books aimed at younger readers, film tie-in versions, ‘classics’ collections from various presses including Penguin and Signet Classics).
But Cover To Cover is first and foremost a coffee table book. Although the commentary that accompanies the book covers is thoughtful, it is rarely very in-depth. The book is more a showcase for the covers, inviting readers (if they are so inclined) to make up their own minds about the kinds of patterns that emerge in the production of Jane Austen cover art. And as a coffee table book it is unquestionably superb; it is characterised by a soft pastel palette, and the text and images are nicely laid out. It’s also peppered with quotes from the novels and Austen’s letters, some of which were probably unnecessary, but which serve to fill some valuable space and sound good doing it.
For bookworms who love the physical, as well as the internal aspects of a book, Cover To Cover is an absolute dream. It unapologetically indulges in admiration for beautifully designed and presented books, and pokes fun at the bizarre, the confusing, or the downright ugly – without losing sight of why these strange and unappealing designs might have appeared.
What’s clear overall is that we appear to have reached a point in history where a book’s physical appearance is once more of the utmost importance. From Austen’s own day, where wealthy landowners would have their books re-bound so that all the books in their libraries matched, to today’s Barnes and Noble hardbacks, collectible editions, and endless cover redesigns, the book-as-object appears to be going through a renaissance.
Whether you look upon this as the death of substance in a postmodern world obsessed with physical appearances, or whether you herald this as a new age of art and design, where the functional becomes beautiful, and image, text, and reader feed off one another, one thing is clear: sometimes what is on the covers can tell you just as much as what’s between them.
Rating: 4 Stars