Posted on: 15 September 2016
It’s Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover – A review
Hi, I’m Kostis and I love books! I always need to know that there are at least three of them in my “To Read” list before I finish the one I’m currently reading. I also love well-designed book covers. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have been deceived numerous times by works of art who gave way to pages of utter junk. Yep, you definitely shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, especially if it’s a well-designed one.
A few weeks ago, while browsing the design section of a local bookstore, I came across the equivalent of a 1-litre Nutella jar: Penguin’s “Classic Penguin: Cover by Cover”. A 288-page softcover book, which showcases a collection of covers done for the Penguin Classics’ series. During the last 10 years, Penguin has been re-introducing classic books such as “Pride and Prejudice” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. “Re-introduction” is purposefully used here, as opposed to “re-publication”.
There are publishing companies that have done just this: taken a decent translation, added a generic cover (admittedly, sometimes even a good one) and Bob’s your uncle. But these guys have taken the whole story to a different level. Understanding that times, values, ideas, and styles change, they produce editions that make the reading population appreciate classic works of literature under a different light. Like seeing someone you come across every day in a well-tailored suit or dress.
The first ten pages of the book contain introductory pieces by Audrey Niffenegger (visual artist and writer), Elda Rotor (VP and publisher for Penguin Classics) and Paul Buckley (creative director of the Penguin Classics series). Then the magic begins. The main body of the book is divided in 12 parts, one for each sub-series.
Each one includes several representative covers and short but highly informative articles by the series’ designer, illustrator or art-director. Even though the visual part is the most impressive, it’s those explanations and descriptions that give meaning and substance to the designs. A proof that, for example, Travis Louie wasn’t just “trying to be different” by portraying the Great Cthulhu as a well-dressed Victorian Gentleman with a monocle (yeah, ok, there are still tentacles on the cover, it’s H. P. Lovecraft after all).
One of the most surprising and refreshing elements of the covers that are included is the diversity of the artists that have been involved. There are illustrations by James Franco, Eric Drooker, Ross MacDonald and Noma Bar. Being a long-time “Hellboy” fan I was pleasantly surprised coming across Mike Mignola’s cover for Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.
Despite the different styles, the books “feel” as if they’re part of the same series (maybe because of that diversity). Like having people of completely different characters who end up working great together as a team. On the other hand, there are series like “Pelican” which have a strict template where the only thing that changes is the illustration (always done in the same style).
Another element that is generally avoided in the majority of the covers of classic works of literature, but is quite common in Penguin Classics, is the accurate depiction of the book’s main character(s). Regardless of the level of detail or the style, showing the face of a character that sometimes has even reached symbolic value (like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov), is quite uncommon.
Having a realistic illustration of the main character works just fine in romantic novels but it’s not something you’d expect in “Les Misérables” (Fabio wouldn’t make a very convincing Jean Valjean). However, the designers who decided to go that way, do so with such finesse and respect to the character that the reader never feels that they are being dictated on how they should imagine the book’s protagonist.
“Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover” is a good book about good covers of good books. It is refreshing to see that publishers and designers care a good deal about delivering impressive covers for books that have no need for introduction, as these literary masterpieces have been tried through decades – even centuries. It’s even more refreshing that other publishers follow the example of Penguin. Not only did this publication make me want go back to some of those classics but it made me want to be a better designer.