Tuesday, June 21, 2011


So, this guy walks up to the reference desk and says, "I'm looking for a certain Holocaust book."

The librarian says, "I think I can help you. We have an extensive Holocaust section. What's the title of the book?"

"I don't know."

"The author?"

"Can't remember."

"The publisher?"

"No idea ... but the cover is black."

The sarcastic librarian then replies, "I'm sorry, sir. Our library doesn't shelve books by color, but you're welcome to browse. Let me show you where the section starts."

The more thoughtful librarian asks if he's looking for The Black Book of Polish Jewry ... and then shows him where to browse.

An old proverb I'm sure that we're all familiar with warns us that we should not judge a book by its cover. However, there's also a different proverb which reminds us that a first impression is a lasting one.

Book covers can serve one of 2 functions :

(1) It can attract the browser's eye towards it and away from books nearby


(2) It can convey information about the book to the browser

It's my personal opinion that the most effective book covers manage to do both.

If a publisher has a title that sells well and then continuously uses the same cover design for subsequent editions, then the cover can become iconic.

The following cover, for example, should be recognizable to some of you :

This one, as well.

Those who design book covers will often resort to using a type of iconic "shorthand". In the case of Judaica books, this means inserting easily recognizable symbols into the book cover, the most common ones probably being the magen david and the yellow star specifically for Holocaust books.

Others include the Jerusalem skyline,

the Torah scroll and matzoh ball soup.

Although such "shorthand" is easier for the designer  and helps us distinguish between Judaica and non-Judaica books, it can make the covers seem uninventive, cliched, and mundane.

Of course, how much one perceives a particular book cover as being effective or ineffective, unique or standard, exceptional or dull, etc. is shaped by one's personal experiences and tastes. Having said that, I've tried to select several examples of what I consider to be interesting and impressive designs, as well as ones which I find to be specifically problematic.

First though, to better appreciate the evolution of book covers, I'd like to draw attention to 5 aspects of differential design.

The first evolution can coms about as a result of negotiation and experimentation. Not every book cover is the first-&-only design to be considered for a particular book, but we usually don't see the rejected ideas (known as "comps").

Kimberly Glyder is a designer who shares her comps, along with commentary about them.

One of the books she designed the cover for was Sonia's Sorrow.

This is a concept sketch for the cover of the book The Journal of Helene Berr :

Here, the Magen David is worked into the focus of the cover - the journal - as a binding. It's not as obvious as one usually sees on Judaica book covers. Alas, the cover was rejected.

Here's one of the covers that was accepted and used.

A 2nd point I'd like to make is that the book's author can sometimes give input about the design, while in other instances it's totally out of his or her hands.

Joel Chasnoff, author of a biography about serving in the IDF, specifically requested that the book cover not contain any Magen Davids.

So, naturally, this is the cover idea that was presented to him :

I like the idea of using toy soldiers, but the pattern of their arrangement on all the triangle's sides of the Magen David obviously goes against the author's wishes. So, it was back to the drawing board and here's the final result :

A 3rd difference I'd like to point out is the one between a dust jacket around the book itself. Sometimes, the difference can be quite striking.

This cartoon baby suggests almost nothing about the book unless one recognizes the cartoonist's style or knows who the character is.

By contrast,

Here, if the imagery gets the book noticed, the browser can glance at the title and get a quick sense of what the book is about.

A fourth factor to consider is the way that new editions can result in new covers, even when the content is virtually the same.

Here's the concept art for the book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay :

The image is symbolic, but makes perfect sense once you've read the story.

Now here's one of the covers that ended up being used :

The magnificence of the Empire State Building is retained, but without the locks and chains, the book could be about anything. All we can be certain of is that it takes place in New York.

This cover, meant to evoke a nonexistent comic book, as well as paying homage to the cover of the first issue of Captain America, gives a browser the sense that the novel has something to do with superheroes or comics.

Here's one of the covers used for a novel by a Jewish writer who lived in Montreal :

Looking at this edition, you don't really get an idea of who or what the book is about. You can't even make a guess at where or when it takes place.

By contrast, when you take a look at this edition

two of the visuals that stand out are the street sign (which clearly identifies the setting as Montreal) and the anti-Semitic graffiti which suggests that at least one of the characters is Jewish.

I found this cover difficult to interpret : the title, the white clouds in a blue sky, the outline of a human head, and the turkey. What do they have to do with each other or the subtitle?

Now let's look at a different edition :

All that remains is the turkey, but a section of text has been added. For those who know the Hasidic parable "the turkey prince"or "the rooster prince"(both stories are identical ; one just needs to substitute the word  "turkey " for "rooster"), the context of the phrase "under the table" is understood, as well as the use of a turkey on the cover.

Fifthly, if a book is sold in different countries, each country could be marketed with a different cover design.

Here's the cover of the (original) American edition of The Yiddish Policemen's Union. The banner artwork along the sides suggests that the book concerns Jews (also confirmed by the title) and takes place in the Northwest.

Contrast that with the UK edition shown below.

Going back to Chabon's earlier book, here's what the UK edition looked like :

Since escapism is a running metaphor in the book, as well as the hobby of one of the main characters, this cover tells us more than the skyscraper one did.

Here's how the Israeli edition looked :

Next, I will look at what I consider problematic covers.

Problematic Covers

Let's start with America's favorite pasttime. Having removed the title, we can guess that the book might be about  Jews in baseball. Or about Jewish sporting events like the Maccabiah games.

Here's the actual cover :

There's nothing "wrong" with the cover, per se. But if I were looking for a book about Jewish-American politics, I'd probably walk right past it, thinking that it was a sports book. If I were a Jewish sports fanatic, I'd probably pick the book up, read the title, and then put it back down again.

What could the missing words be here? "Flowers?" "Arts & Crafts?" "Psychedelic Drugs"?

The problem with series book design is that once a publisher has established a cover design for all of the books in a series, your book is stuck with that look if it's published as part of that series.

Does this design remind anyone of the opening sequence of Doctor Who? Maybe The Doctor is Jewish?

This would be a decent cover for a book about Jewish comedy or the Marx Brothers.

Is the publisher suggesting that living in an interfaith household is just one big joke?

There are 2 things I don't like about this cover. The artwork along the side is abstract enough that the book could be about anything. But that artwork also takes up such a small part of the cover, it might as well be a totally black cover.

Here's another example of an almost-black cover, as well as a series style. Also, it's a book about libraries.

There's no rule that says that the illustration has to exactly match the title. Here's a cover that could have had a title like The Jewish Wife.

I'm not an art critic, but something about the way the colors run along this cover just bugs me.

To look at this book, you might think the title is "The Jewish Bathroom Companion" or "Tales of a Jewish Plumber".

What's great about this example is that we now know that neo-Nazis don't have such great marketing and maybe people will notice their books a little less.

This cover could be for a book of Jewish sci-fi or Jewish astronauts.

There's nothing much wrong with this cover. For me, though, the colors are too bright, distributed all over the place, and the buildings look like they've been drawn by a first-grader.

That's a lot of Vs. But what's the book about?

When I look at this cover, I don't know what to think. Lots of yellow bubbles of different shapes and sizes.

In case you can't see all of the text, this is a book of poetry.

Some of you might recognize this cover. For those who don't, let's examine what's happening on this rather sparse cover. There's a boy. Next to him is a girl clutching a book. There are trees all around. And in the distance, there's someone approaching with his hands in the air. It looks like he's waving his arms. What I don't see on the cover is anyone praying.

There's no drawings here and the strength of the cover is the title and the list of contributors. I don't understand why the use of splotches of blue and white. If the Israeli flag is meant to be evoked, just put the flag on the cover ; it's not copyrighted.

Also, the word "With" written in white blends in with the white background so you almost miss it.

I like the concept of this cover, i.e. the scattered Hebrew letters. The dark, smudged purple against a purple backdrop just doesn't look nice, though.

This book is described as "a saga embracing five generations on Mother's side and five on the side of Father". Does anyone get that from a cover with 2 pencil-thin people standing by a big tree?

What better way to express that this book is about copyright than by placing an oversized copyright logo smack in the middle of the cover? I do like that. However, there's nothing "Jewish" about the cover except the word "Jewish" which doesn't draw the eye as much as the logo does.

This is a rather messy looking cover. Combined with the book's title, it's suggesting that mixed marriages are a gamble ... which is a bit better than saying that it's a big joke.

I can appreciate the cubist art style, but I don't know if it's really appropriate or a book about women and dybbuks.

A rather minimalist cover. The word in brown is "true" which isn't easy to read because the shade is so close to the background color.

I know that Hebrew numerology is powerful stuff, but I've never seen the word "chai" grow in size and leap off the page like this. I can understand Einstein being on the cover ; he's Jewish. What I don't get are the other science images beside him, as well as the atomic logo behind the title. Are all of Don's Jewish friends scientists?

Here's another minimalist cover. What makes it stand out a bit is the row of green squares with the third square from the right being blue. Is that supposed to represent the Jew surrounded by Gentiles who are so different from him?

On the other hand, if a green square fades in from nothingness to a green box, then it's a symbol of leadership or not-for-profit management. Or else it's a TARDIS. Or are TARDIS-es blue?

If the subtitle doesn't look easy to read, that would be on account of using white typeface against a multi-colored collage of color. I'm not sure why the splashes of color are supposed to represent genes, memes, memory, or anything Jewish. Myself, I might have chosen something more easily recognizable like a double helix.

If this book were put in the "Internet books" or "Computers" section of a bookstore, it would probably stand out as one of the few books with any Jewish iconography on the cover. Placed in the Judaica section, it would look so generically Jewish that you need to read the title to see what it's about.

Apparently, Jewish healing involves moving to California or Florida.

All I can say about this cover is that I'd describe it as very loud. Sometimes, bigger is not better.

So, when this book designer was told that the title was The Jewish Body, he thought of concrete and hands.

Whereas, this book designer interpreted "100 years of Jewish life" as a giant man jumping over houses.

For a book about the power of conversation, she seems to be walking away from it, rather than towards it.

Here's another Jews-in-space cover.

This cover did succeed in getting my attention. It's not often that two of the title words are intentionally broken up with hyphens and separated by the subtitle and the author's name. For some, this is a cool effect ; for others, not so much.

I understand the requisite use of the Magen Davids, but I'm not sure why overlapping colored squares are supposed to represent the psychoanalytic movement.

I suppose when you can't think of anything interesting for the cover of a biography, you can just use the supersized initial of the subject's name.

I actually like this cover quite a bit - the bold colors, the typeface, the simple layout. I just think it might be offputting for some Judaica libraries to have a book whose cover has the Hebrew name of G-d on it, making it sheimos.

The cover of this Shaft book isn't so different from others in the series or from other cheap paperbacks of the period. I just thought the cover should look a little more Jewish, considering the plot involves "a committee of Hassidim, orthodox Jews whom Shaft at first mistakes for a posse of cowboys.".

The size and font style make the cover not-quite-as-loud as Sfar's book. The white splotches make it worse, though.

I would point out how the abundance of menorahs is a bit much ... except you can't really see the menorahs, since their yellow is almost the same shade as the background color.

There's plenty of color on this cover, but it's not so pleasing to the eye, in my opinion.

There's so much I don't like about this particular cover. The unnecessary sequence of dots, the arrow pointing us to where the title is (as if we didn't know), the purposely-misaligned statement of responsibility, the curve of the subtitle around a disembodied head which is facing away from us and is casting a Magen David shadow. I'm not sure whether to conclude that the designer was trying too hard or not hard enough.

Personally, I don't have a problem with this cover or the next 2 (which have nudity). We must be aware of the sensitivity of our clients, though. Even if a patron doesn't personally complain, his teacher or parent might --- regardless of the merits of the actual book itself. In this case, it's possible that tattoos not being acceptable under Jewish law will be offensive to certain browsers who notice the book in your library.

Likewise these 2 covers with nudes.

I'd like to add that even if the book deals with sexuality, it is possible to indicate that on the book cover without depicting nudes and I'll be showing examples of that shortly.

I'd like to conclude the "negative" portion of this presentation by showing you what I call examples of "Jewish geometry books" - books whose cover designs make me think that the book must be about the importance of shapes and forms to everyday Jewish life.

Now, I'd like to present covers which I personally have found to be interesting and effective.