the clothes make the man

September 10, 2006

For the purposes of this essay, let us ignore the old maxim: “don’t judge a book by its cover.” While in figurative sense, as when applied to relationships, it can often be a valuable thing to keep in mind, in the literal sense I find that a book’s cover can indeed make quite a difference in the perception and even enjoyment of it.

Take, for example, Michael Crichton’s 2002 nanotech-disaster novel: not a particularly memorable read, but I still have fond recollections of the style of its pages. Specifically, each page was of a slightly different width from the one before it, cumulatively creating a distinctive “deckled edge,” as it is called, in the binding. While romantic notions of an embrace of ancient bookbinding traditions are dashed at the very first laughably serious sentences, the book’s aesthetic qualities remain an object of fascination; a form of art, if you will, that grants it a place on my bookshelf to this day.

On the other hand, my enthusiasm for the 2003 film The Matrix Revolutions is tempered somewhat by an astonishingly poor cover design. As you can see here, boneheaded executives over at Warner Bros. decided to make it a collage of the four theatrical poster designs, creating a nasty cut-and-paste effect that butchers the film’s–and the original posters’– formidable artistic qualities. It is fortunate, then, that the film itself does not suffer–at least not as obviously–from such carelessness.

The sharp contrast in the above works raises the question of how, exactly, the packaging should reflect the contents. Prey‘s page design is at odds with the book’s subject matter, creating an interesting contrast, though not necessarily a helpful one. Revolutions‘ design goes in a different, though still frustrating, direction, illogically ignoring what it ought to have featured prominently. Thus they both fail to cohere as a unit, the packaging being distinct from the product though they are inextricably linked together.

It must be noted, however, that the feel of a book need not come from intentional design decisions. Several weeks ago, I purchased an as-yet-unread copy of Within a Budding Grove, the second (of seven) volumes in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past–volume one is proving exceptionally difficult to get through. It was a copy that I had spotted before in a delightfully traditional shop selling all manner of used books, and at 55 years old the book has seen far better days. But, then, that only adds to its charm.

Proust’s writing is itself is a throwback to eras, societies, and language that have long since fallen into disuse, and through this battered volume I am reminded of all that in a tangibly real way. ‘Tis a difficult thing, achieving a connection to the past, and for all that Marcel Proust wrote so much to convey on the meanings of time and memory, I think he would be glad to have his work read in this pleasingly anachronistic format. For Proust, shiny new copies lose their luster. (I must not forget, though, how beautiful Renoir’s “Path Through Tall Grass” is each time I pick up my Barnes & Noble copy of Swann’s Way.)

In capturing the essence of Proust, my aged copy succeeds where our first two examples failed, blurring the line between product and package to a remarkable degree but also, and most importantly I think, doing so without recourse to tricks or attempted “ingenuity.” It simply is, and that is enough.

–D. S. W.


One Response to “the clothes make the man”

  1. […] While I have written about this issue before (albeit indirectly), seeing things like the above causes me renewed sorrow over movie studios’ uncanny ability to make even the visually fantastic summer films look insufferably boring as a packaged product store shelves. It is, to a point, a matter of aesthetic taste, but as a mediocre knockoff of the original’s only so-so design, the Pirates cover screams “we’re floating heads whose complexions have been airbrushed beyond all reason!”; and Brandon Routh’s awkward stare evokes not a whiff of the heroism personified by the character of Superman. […]

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