Examining Books with the Caustic Cover Critic

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On his blog the Caustic Cover Critic, James Morrison tracks down, posts, and comments on beautiful and bizarre book cover design — from current titles to finds from years past. We caught up with him to hear what originally sparked the idea, and asked him to rate some recent covers.

“I’m a fairly lowly writer/editor/designer/illustrator in the real world,” James told us. “My most recent job included designing a children’s book about hepatitis, weirdly enough, so I have a professional interest in design. Couple that with an overpowering obsession with books, and an interest in book design is the natural outcome.”

“When I started writing about book design in 2007, there were already a couple of blogs that I knew of that were doing something similar, but they tended to focus on new books only. I’ve tended to wander all over the place, looking at new books, old books, interviewing designers, and occasionally going off on self-indulgent tangents. I’ve stuck with recent covers that are on books you can still buy, if only to narrow down the options for myself. Ask me on a different day and I’ll probably choose five different covers.”

Click through below for more of his picks.

2666 by Robert Bolaño; designed by Charlotte Strick

James says: “A lovely object, and a practical response to the structure of the book (which consists of three novellas and two novels, all interlinked). It worked on me: I’d been a bit turned off by all the Bolaño hype, and had no real intention of reading him, but then I saw this box and I had to have it. It turned out that the book was brilliant and the hype-merchants were right, but I wouldn’t have known without Strick’s fantastic design.”

The Portable Dorothy Parker; designed by Seth

James says: “One of the first Penguin Graphic Classics, where comics artists design covers for books in the Penguin Classics catalog, and still one of the best. The style suits the writer and the era, and the comic strip elements show a real affection for Parker and her work, without putting her on a pedestal. And it makes a real virtue of a very limited color palette.”

Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin; designed by Alice Smith

James says: “A riot of colors and pictures and textures that could easily have been a mess, but in Alice Smith’s hands this turned out beautifully. The cover perfectly complements the manic, energetic, over-the-top writing in the book. Smith also provided a number of interior illustrations, just to make things even better.”

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin; designed by David Pearson

James says: “Probably the best cover from the almost uniformly excellent Great Ideas series, Pearson’s design is simple, elegant, and witty. I don’t see how this book could ever have any other cover now.”

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov; designed by Matt Dawson

James says: “This was actually the winning entry in a competition to design a new cover for this book, and it’s amazing. The Master and Margarita is one of my favorite books, and this shadow puppet photo captures the flavor of the story perfectly. But if you didn’t know what the book was about, how could you not want to pick it up and find out?”

Poser™ covers

James says: “Genre publishing is as heavily represented in self-publishing as elsewhere, so you can find tons of romance and fantasy and science-fiction. And, in these post-Twilight days, there is no shortage of supernatural erotic/romance stuff being pumped out. The contents may be dire, but even worse are the covers: unable to afford proper designers or models or artists, the authors turn to Poser software to computer-generate their steaming lovers, creating horrible, dead-eyed, plastic-skinned angels and vampires and bosomy virgins. See the complete output of Changeling Press, for example.”

Classic + Photoshop + Nude

James says: “A distressing tendency in do-it-yourself publishers of neglected classics is to take the opportunity to bung a naked woman on every cover at the slightest provocation. To make her relevant, they’ll do some half-hearted Photoshoppery to make her look like the heroine or villain of the book. The result looks like amateur hour in the digital collage classroom, and makes for some very unerotic nudes.”

Totally demented cover images James says: “One publisher I kept coming back to on my blog is the India-based Tutis Classics, with their catalog of thousands of out-of-copyright POD books. Mere words cannot express how inept they are. Occasionally leaving off the author’s surname and committing rampant copyright violations are the least of their problems. It’s their sheer inability to match cover to content that makes them special. If you want a book of Sherlock Holmes stories with a space mercenary on the front, a book about John Quincy Adams decorated with Easter Island statues, memoirs of Norway illustrated with photos of palm trees on a beach, Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses on the cover of a Thomas Hardy book, or nuclear explosions on the cover of a book about angling, then Tutis is the publisher for you. See more of their unique incompetence.”