Judging 11 books by their covers

Holiday booksI'm off on a week's holiday, so don't expect a blog entry next week. Instead let's consider the proposition that we do judge a book by its cover -- whether we should or not. After all, that's exactly what people do with a web site when they see it first. The design of the site has overwhelming power to influence our opinion about credibility. If we like the design, we regard the content and site owner as worthy of our attention. And a good design takes us a long way towards understanding what a web site is about and for, and its style. Is that so different with a book?

Anyway, I spread out a handful of books that I'm considering taking away with me to the beach. My too-big suitcase is lighter than my small suitcase, so I'm taking the big. I'm fully packed and there's still room for books. The taxi comes at 4 am tomorrow. So I need to make some snap decisions.

First up, Atoms, dinosaurs and DNA: Great New Zealand Scientists, by Veronika Meduna & Rebecca Priestley. This one is a worry. The subject is fascinating (to me anyway) and I can see they write well. But the look and feel is far too reminiscent of worthy school reference books, the ones we used to consult for our School Projects in the (ahem) 1960s. I hope the kids see past the design. I'll leave this one at home.

Next, my passport. The design is utterly appropriate. Official. Serious. Navy blue and gold. It looks like a passport. It is a passport. End of story.

No. 3 is this week's New Scientist. Light, bright, imaginative, abstract image on white. Topics that tantalise. But the only words that matter are New Scientist and the date. A treat for the plane.

No. 4 is The Shadows of Horses by Mike Keenan, published by Random House. Photo of Aussie on horseback on a dry Aussie cattle property. Judging from the cover and standard paperback shape of the book I'd expect this story to be stark, simple, human and true. And a quick read. So I'll take it, and give it to my sister and brother-in-law in Brisbane, who broke in 30,000 acres of Queensland bush and raised cattle there for 30-odd years.

The Dreamers of the Day cover evokes colonial Egypt, both in the image and the cursive font, elaborate but legible. A young British flapper gazes at the sun rising over a distant horizon, beyond a pyramid, a plateau and a plain. From the cover I expect this novel to be both nostalgic and adventurous, to have layers, to intertwine a personal story with the epic of Arab history. The colours are dull but blue-grey, not sepia -- which to me implies it's fiction, not fact. The author is Mary Doria Russell, and Doubleday the publisher. A probable for my bag.

The font on the cover of The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer is frivolous in the extreme. But the book's hard cover and round spine and textured paper cover is cosy and comforting. So I expect this book to be a good fun read. If there is wildness, it will be described with wit and perfect etiquette. Strictly speaking, this book should be read in a squishy armchair by the fire, not on a towel under a palm tree -- but I'm sure I'll enjoy it anyway. Allen & Unwin published it.

Blood Line by Michael Green is tempting. I like a thriller on the plane, and this one has an intriguing story line: What if your family was the last left alive? And by the way, they're in New Zealand.
The font is very bold in colour, size and shape... and partly eroded. Two men walking an empty highway. Not together. No cars. Street in need of repairs. A hefty book to go with the hefty font. Random House published it.

No. 8, My Name is Will, A novel of sex, drugs, and Shakespeare by Jess Winfield is an enigma. On the one hand, I'm tempted by the incongruous combination of old and new, the scrawled title, the totally modern take on an old portrait. The word Shakespeare in this context makes me want to read it. I'm expecting wit and erudition and lots of literary amusement. On the other hand, I am deeply bored by most books by druggies. Is this a druggie's whine, or is it a student feeling his oats? I'll take a punt, on the basis of this lively, glowing, young cover. Allen & Unwin are the publishers.

No. 9 is I dream of Magda by Stefan Laszczuk. I think I spelled that correctly... S, z, c, z, yep. I can't resist this one. Gold sticker saying The Australian/ Vogel Literary Award Winner. Quote from Marele Day. And a thoroughly ridiculous photograph. Another beaut from Allen & Unwin is my bet.

The cover of Here Comes Everybody, The power of organising without organizations, by Clay Shirky says heaps. Those buttons instantly summon the culture of mass movements and popular opinion and much more. From the cover I expect a bold, clearly articulated and popular book about the power of social networking by internet and cell phones. With soundbites. We'll see.

And no. 11 is definitely going in my travel bag. The cover of Etiquette for a dinner party, short stories by Sue Orr, sends out an aura of sophistication, quaint character, surprise and humour. Another one from Random House.

Now to pack the chosen books. And find out how right or wrong I was with my snap judgements.

P.S. When I refer to my sister, I could mean any one of 5 amazing women.


Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

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1 Comment

Susan Wylie
Susan Wylie

August 11, 2008

The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie and Literary Society is a good, satisfying novel. Light enough to entertain, deep enough to spin a good lesson. I read it this weekend – wickedly tucked up in bed – even more comforting than an armchair by a fire. A perfect cold weekend/holiday break read!

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