Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Judge A Book By Its Cover

We’ve all heard the old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But of course we do, and publishers spend money and time galore on book design and cover art. Who loses when the shelves are full of beautiful books? The classics, of course. A dusty leather-bound tome with Moby-Dick stamped on the cover doesn’t stand much of a chance next to bright colors and bold images. So for the past few years, Penguin Classics has been releasing “Graphic Classic” and “Couture Classic” Deluxe Editions with some of the best and most intriguing cover art out there. Modern and artistic, these covers make you stop dead and cry out loud, “What is this book about?” The classics have stood the test of time for a reason: They are damn fine stories, and they deserve to shine.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, cover art by Ruben Toledo, 2009, Penguin Books, originally published 1850 (Fiction Classics/ Historical Fiction)

You’d think a tale of sin and betrayal in colonial New England would never go out of style, and you’re right—The Scarlet Letter is Hawthorne’s masterpiece. The new cover is stunning—a surly woman with flaming hair strikes a pose behind a large, bright red letter A. Glittery threads across her arm and there’s a big-eyed babe clinging to her shoulder. This is Hester Prynne, a lively young woman who, in the year 1642, has a baby. What’s shocking is that Hester’s much-older husband is not the father—he’s not even in America. Adultery is a major sin to the local Puritan folk and Hester is forced to live publicly with her shame, a red letter A buttoned to her clothing. Years pass, and Hester never reveals the name of her lover, not to her daughter, not even to her husband who has returned and is living apart from Hester under the guise of the town doctor. But as daughter Pearl grows up, she senses a connection between her mother and Dr. Chillingworth—and between her mother and the eloquent but tortured minister Dimmesdale. Hawthorne, exploring the morals of 17th century from a distance of two hundred years, writes strikingly about the enduring conflicts between nature and culture, desire and law, right and wrong. Descriptive, symbolic, and thought provoking, The Scarlet Letter is an American classic of the finest caliber.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, cover art by Daniel Clowes, 2007, Penguin Books, originally published 1818 (Fiction Classics/ Horror)

No cover is more appropriate for Frankenstein—a story that has been turned into cheesy horror movies and campy Halloween costumes—than the one artist Daniel Clowes designed for Penguin: an eye-catching comic strip in which Frankenstein meets his monster on a windswept hillside. Victor Frankenstein is a dashing young man, educated, intelligent, with a passion for science. Inspired by his work in chemistry, Victor creates life by reanimating dead matter. But the result—after an obsessive frenzy of experiments—is horrible. The new creature is not the height of human perfection that Victor dreamed of; it’s a hideous, freakish ogre. Repulsed, Victor retreats into a “normal life,” leaving his monster to make its own confused way in the world. Naturally, things do not go well for either Victor (wracked by guilt) or monster (lonely and angry) and creator and creation are destined to meet again and again. Eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley started writing her masterpiece on a dare, when she and boyfriend Percy Shelley were staying with Lord Byron. It was a dark and stormy night, and Byron challenged himself and each of his guests to pen a supernatural tale of suspense and horror. Considering the classic status of Frankenstein and its never-ending influence on modern culture, it’s pretty safe to say that Mary won.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, cover art by Jeffrey Brown, 2009, Penguin Books, originally published 1911 (Fiction Classics)

One of the most intriguing covers, Ethan Frome depicts a big tree with a dent in the bark and a pair of intertwined legs flailing on the ground as they trail off the cover’s edge. One leg is bent at an odd angle, and are those flecks of blood on the white snow? The branches of the tree weave through the bright red letters of the title and the whole thing inspires one reaction: “What on earth is this book about?” Ethan Frome is about a man named Ethan Frome, of course, as well as his sickly wife Zeena and her cousin Mattie, who helps around the house. Ethan is in the habit of walking Mattie home from the church dance on her nights off; Zeena is (rightly so) suspicious of Ethan’s attentions. Still, Zeena goes away overnight to visit a doctor, leaving her husband and cousin on their own. Romance is in the air, but then the cat breaks Zeena’s favorite pickle dish. It may seem a trivial incident, but it’s all downhill from there for this love triangle. Author Edith Wharton is a master of literary symbolism, and the setting (winter in the fictional Massachusetts town of Starkfield) only adds to the desperate mood as Ethan dreams of a life different than the one he has—a theme so universal and timeless that Ethan Frome was destined to become a classic.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, cover art by Ruben Toledo, 2009, Penguin Books, originally published 1847 (Fiction Classics/ Romance)

Wuthering Heights is the story of the foundling Heathcliff and headstrong Catherine Earnshaw. The Penguin “Couture Edition” depicts these two characters in all their gothic, romantic glory. Catherine graces the front wrapped in shawls and beads, wide-eyed and willowy like a spooky version of Betty Boop. Heathcliff is the tall dark figure on the reverse side, eyes glowering under furrowed brows and a wild mane of hair as the dark outline of the Wuthering Heights farmhouse rises behind him. Heathcliff is an orphan adopted by the Earnshaw family; little Catherine takes an instant liking to him but brother Hindley is bitterly jealous. When Hindley grows up and takes control of the Earnshaw estate, Heathcliff is regulated to servant-status. Catherine is still Heathcliff’s ally—until they meet the neighboring Linton family. When Catherine chooses gentlemanly Edgar Linton over wild-child Heathcliff, the stage is set for a multi-generational drama of passion, jealousy, and revenge to be played out amongst the Earnshaw, Linton, and Heathcliff families against the backdrop of the wild and windy Yorkshire moors. Wuthering Heights was Emily Brontë’s first and last novel; she died only a year after its publication at the tender age of thirty. She left behind quite a legacy—Heathcliff and Catherine’s love is not only stronger than life or death, it has endured for over a century as one of the most intense love affairs in English literature.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, cover art by Thomas Ott, 2006, Penguin Books, originally published 1962 (Fiction Classics/ Mystery) 

Two thin faces stare out at us from the cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle—three if you count the cat, a few more if you consider the lurking townsfolk in the background. Their wide fearful eyes, drawn in stark black-and-white, are more than enough to convey the haunting atmosphere within the pages. The two grim faces belong to Constance and Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, and six years ago the rest of their family (save Uncle Julian) was killed, poisoned when the sugar sprinkled on the blueberries was laced with arsenic. Uncle Julian survived; Merricat had been sent to bed without dessert; Constance—who did not put sugar on her berries—was arrested and acquitted. Since then, the trio has lived in seclusion, shunned by the neighbors. Constance has retreated even farther into solitude, becoming something of an agoraphobe. Only teenage Merricat maintains contact with the outside world, fetching home groceries and library books while schoolchildren mock her. But Merricat is happy surrounding their home with her own superstitious brand of magic, nailing charms to trees and the like. Then cousin Charles comes to visit. He’s got his eye on the Blackwood family fortune, but he little knows the depths to which Merricat will go to protect what remains of her family. Dark, quirky, with a deceptively light touch and a gothic flare, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a compelling modern classic.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, cover art by Tom Gauld, 2007, Penguin Books, originally published 1844 (Fiction Classics/ Adventure/ Historical Fiction)

The Three Musketeers is an intimidating book: over 600 pages long. But every page is packed with danger, adventure, and humor, and the Penguin cover reflects that in the simplest way—with cute little stick figures. On a pale pink background, a dapper fellow with big boots and a feather in his hat waits for the man he challenged to a duel to show up for the big fight. He’s hungry, he wishes he’d had lunch before he came, and he can’t actually remember what his opponent looked like. This is brash young D’Artagnan, whose only goal in life is to join the ranks of the Musketeers who serve as the King Louis XIII’s personal bodyguards. Soon, not one but three men show up with swords drawn—D’Artagnon is a hotheaded youngster who really challenges a lot of fellows to fights. But the four gentlemen unite forces when agents of the vile and corrupt Cardinal Richelieu attempt to arrest them. And so D’Artagnon has three new friends—Athos, Porthos, and Aramis (the dashing three Musketeers of the title) and the quartet cry “All for one and one for all!” and are off on the adventure of a lifetime. Seductresses, spies, assassins all make appearances; there are love affairs and political intrigue galore, quips aplenty, and lots of swordplay. In fact, 600 pages flies by in this action-packed swashbuckler. The new cover pokes a bit of fun at author Dumas too, on the back cover, where those dashing little cartoon figures make a comical reappearance.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, cover art by Ruben Toledo, 2011, Penguin Books, originally published 1891 (Fiction Classics/ Fantasy)

Best known for his sparkling wit in plays like The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windemeres Fan, Oscar Wilde had a dark side. The Picture of Dorian Gray is his only novel, and it’s a doozy. Lord Henry is watching his friend Basil Hallward paint a striking portrait. Soon the subject himself arrives—handsome young Dorian Gray. Lord Henry takes a liking to Dorian and extols the joys of a life devoted to pleasure. Dorian’s all for it, and is soon carousing with the best scoundrels of his day. In a grimy theater, Dorian spies the lovely actress Sibyl Vane—and breaks her heart. Dorian continues to rabble and rouse. He even becomes disdainful of good old Basil, whose portrait of Dorian has begun to take on some unusual characteristics of its own. As the years go by and Dorian revels in vice, he retains his youthful good looks. And when a conscience rears its ugly head, the picture of Dorian Gray has a one last surprise in store. Much more than a cautionary tale, Wilde’s novel is fraught with atmosphere of the deliciously creepy-crawly variety. The Penguin cover has a bit of fun with Dorian, featuring a stage and curtain and a fainting lady whose hand is clutched by a golden picture frame with tuxedo-clad arms and legs. Just a trace of the painting inside is visible, and that’s more than enough to pique the curiosity of any reader.

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