“What use is a book,” asked Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “without pictures or conversation?” It is a statement that the millions of Instagram users who use the #bookstagram tag would agree with. But Alice refers to illustrations and dialogue within the book, while “bookstagrammers” make artfully composed photographs of the book itself. Bookstagrammers turn books into aesthetic objects in their own right.
Instagram, for those who do not know, is a social network for sharing pictures. Users tag their images with hashtags, allowing other users to search for different pictures. The #bookstagram tag is a modern phenomenon, literally judging books by their covers, and it has been used over 6m times at the time of writing. “What use is a book,” the Bookstagrammers may ask, “if you cannot take a photograph of it and share it on Instagram?”
Beginning with The Yellow Book
Illustrated book covers and dust jackets are a relatively recent development in book history. Until the 19th century, book covers served the practical purpose of protecting the book, or providing a space for advertisement. It wasn’t until Aubrey Beardsley’s controversial cover illustrations for The Yellow Book in 1894 that books began to regularly feature illustrative images on their jackets.
The Yellow Book is a fascinating case in book design because it deliberately wanted people to judge it by its cover. Alongside Beardsley’s illustrations, The Yellow Book (aptly) had a yellow cover. Beardsley wanted the book to be associated with the scandalous French novels of the time, which were known for being “yellow” due to the yellow wrapper they were placed in to warn purchasers of their content.
When Oscar Wilde was arrested for indecency in 1895 he was said to be carrying a copy of The Yellow Book. He wasn’t – it was actually a French novel – but the fact that this has become a popular myth is revealing. It shows us that not only can we judge a book by its cover, but we can also judge a man by the cover of the book he is supposed to have been reading.
In the decades following the publication of The Yellow Book, the publishing industry oversaw a revolution in design. Whether it was children’s fiction, detective stories or Gothic novels, all genres of book began to incorporate pictorial images on their covers.
Designing book covers
The cover designs of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, both published in 1925, would become vastly influential. The Great Gatsby cover, by Francis Cugat, was a powerful pictorial expression of the central theme of the book: the sadness and melancholy that underpins even the most glamorous of lives. Vanessa Bell’s cover for Mrs Dalloway, meanwhile, was a post-impressionist interpretation of the novel that challenged readers to make sense of its abstract design. Book design was becoming increasingly influenced by high art.
In 1935, Allen Lane launched Penguin Books, which would go on to transform the publishing industry through its inexpensive and beautifully designed paperbacks. Edward Young created the first designs for the company along with the eponymous penguin logo. Divided into three different sections and colour coded depending on the book’s genre, Young’s design was simple and elegant, combining word and image to create a distinct and enduring visual identity for the company.
Penguin has gone on to prove remarkably adept at the art of the book cover since Young’s initial designs. The Penguin Modern Classics series often juxtaposes black and white photography and typography in a way that at once elucidates the book’s contents and allows readers to generate their own interpretations. When we see a book which has been branded with the Penguin logo, we inevitably make positive judgements about the quality of the material inside.
The same cannot be said for Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Published in 2011, James’s novel was the publishing phenomena of the year, selling 125m copies worldwide. But the cover of the book was nothing special: a photograph of a knotted tie against a dark background. But what is so remarkable about Fifty Shades of Grey is that it was published at a time when readers could enjoy the book in public without fear that their reading habits were going to be judged. This is due to the advent of e-readers such as the Kindle which disguises the cover of the book.
To a casual observer, a Kindle reader could be reading anything. But it is also this very technology that is causing a new renaissance in book design. Publishers, fearing that e-books are going to “kill off” the physical book, have begun to make more and more of an effort in the design of their material books.
A quick look at the shelves in bookshops shows that publishers are trying to emphasise the unique aspects of the physical book: hardbacks of the classics are embossed with beautiful decorative patterns and typography, while contemporary fiction now happily uses imagery and styles taken from the history of the visual arts. This is why #bookstagram is so culturally significant: it uses the digital medium to celebrate the very material substance of the book itself.
Michael John Goodman is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University.