Cover Stories

book covers, nytTHIS NEW YORK TIMES PIECE had particular significance, as for many years — through college and for some time beyond — I ordered, unpacked, shelved, hand-sold books to many. No matter what that old canard warns against, we are nudged by what we see. Book covers move us or they don’t.  Designers know how to touch some secret place in our past, they locate our yearnings, they convey some mood or atmosphere. Their choices determine where we, as booksellers, placed a book: face-out instead of “spined”; in a window balanced on a delicate stand like a piece of art;  in a geometric stack at the store’s entrance; on a counter next to the cash register, the prime location for the impulse buy.

There was a certain type of person who would buy any book for which, say, Fred Marcellino  provided its visual imprimatur  or later, Chip Kidd, and of course John Gall, who designed the market-changing series of Vintage Contemporaries trade paperbacks that would come to define a certain moment of 1980s hipness and hedonism. (Gall was asked recently to redesign a trio of the titles for anniversary editions of the books).

Still, I admit to my own sort of  surfrace-read,  knee-jerk, “judging” reaction to people who say that they are “reading” a book when they listen to it on CD or MP3. And now, recently, I realize I have the same impulse when I look over and see someone reading a “book” on a digital reader. I’m not so much a Luddite as it might appear. I’ve carried enough heavy books on impossibly long, overseas trips to be intrigued by the notion of not having to cull my stack down in case of choosing the “wrong” titles. Yet as beautiful as those devices are — light, alluring, conversation pieces — there is something about the come hither look of a beautifully designed cover, about making that connection with someone on your morning commute or on an airplane because you happen to be carrying around the same travel-worn copy of some obscure or unlikely title.  As a bookseller (and now later as a journalist),  it was the way I used to be able to detect trends, order more backlist books by the same author; how I was able, as a store manager to know how “hot” a book was because I would see it physically in so many hands. It was not just a measure of sales, it told us about that moment, the “summer book” or the introspective fall title that would be on everyone lips: just a glance at the cover of those books on my own shelves now, tells me not just what was between those covers, but reminds me of what was happening in that moment, when that book was everywhere — stuffed inside a backpack, a handbag, back pocket or was balanced on the little cafe table face down but telegraphing the promise of its story to the world.

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