Can you tell a book by its cover? I’d say you can ... sometimes, sort of, up to a point. And that’s as far as it should go. A huge part of the pleasure and the mystery of reading comes from readers’ capacity — independent of the influence of the writer or the book designer — to dream up their own versions of people and places within a story.
A cover is the only overtly illustrated part of a novel, which is why it should never give too much away or be too precise. New editions of books published to tie in with films are the worst offenders. If I read, say, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, I don’t want the versions of the main characters that form in my head to look like Ralph Fiennes (very hard not to think of airplanes) and Cate Blanchett (Australia’s first female PM in waiting, with apologies to Julia Gillard). But I can’t help it: now they do.
If the feedback I’ve been getting is any indication, Figurehead’s cover gets it about right. It’s visually striking: the faceless man — there’s a faint hint of his features beneath a blue-green wash of skin — suggests somebody secretive, shadowy, possibly sinister, somebody expert in the wearing of masks, somebody with a public persona that sharply diverges from the private, inner man. It’s a visual hint about the ‘tone’ and the subject matter of the book. But no more.
My fascination with book covers stems partly, I think, from my use of visual art and photographs to help fire my creativity. There’s something about looking at art that sends my imagination off on unexpected tangents. My computer screensaver — a John Olsen etching of a bewildered, faintly depressed-looking fish, possibly a Murray cod (if you were a Murray cod you’d probably be depressed too) — has saved me from a failed day’s writing more than a few times.
But my interest in book covers also stems from the fact that I worked for many years in various Adelaide bookshops — most recently at an antiquarian booksellers (that’s a seller of old books, not an old bookseller). For dealers and collectors, book covers take on a whole different type of importance. To maximise their monetary value, the dust jackets of modern first editions (anyone remember the hardback?) must be present. But more than that, the jacket should be intact, bright, and free of rips or tears or chips or stains or those mould stains known as foxing — so named because it’s as if a muddy-pawed fox has pattered across the book.
I remember once coming across a first edition of Peter Carey’s Bliss in a box on the floor of the Community Aid Abroad (now Oxfam) charity bookshop on East Terrace in Adelaide. For some reason or other, UQP decided to issue the book with a snazzy but utterly impractical silver foil jacket. My copy still had its jacket but, as tends to happen to foil over the years, it was creased and scratched and looked a little like it had been stored in somebody’s outhouse.
Book collecting is an odd pursuit (it’s something I’m exploring in my novel-in-progress, Potatoes in All Their Glory). I put my first edition copy of Bliss inside a protective cover, made from a special type of plastic designed to not react chemically with the book, and sat it on my shelf. A few years later I sold it, along with a pile of other books. I didn’t get much for it — maybe four or five times the loose change I paid for it at the Community Aid Abroad shop. In the time I owned it I never opened it to read. I never would have dreamed of doing so, because it was a first edition with a fragile jacket. It was hardly a book at all, by then.