An overview of book cover art

Exploring historical shifts and the significance of book covers

Cover art is art too.
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The old saying tells us not to judge a book by its cover, but we’ve been doing exactly that for centuries. From medieval manuscripts to 1980s high fantasy, book covers have long been a visual expression of a book’s content and significance. 
 
Book covers are works of art deserving of appreciation and contemplation. The historical context of the book, however, drastically changes the purpose and composition of its cover. 
 
For example, Medieval books were luxury items to be enjoyed solely by the political and intellectual elite. Literacy was a rarity, and consequently, books were precious objects. 
 
During Medieval times, we saw bejewelled, bedazzled book covers like this. Covers, then, reflected the value of a book and its status as a luxury good exclusive to the educated upper class. 
 
However, with the proliferation of printing presses and increased literacy rates, the place of books and the role of book covers changed.
 
Book covers during the 16th to 19th centuries were primarily functional. Of course, they were beautiful and embossed, but the illustrations we associate with modern book covers were found inside the binding. Books had illustrated title pages called a frontispiece, which you might have noticed if you’ve ever had to read Shakespeare in high school.
 
Additionally, until the Industrial Revolution, it was the buyer’s responsibility to have their books bound: printers sold the printed text of a book, and binders bound the pages. So, the buyer essentially got to choose the appearance of the cover. 
 
The cover, then, was not a form of artistic expression nor reflective of the themes contained inside. It was merely a decorative means to hold your loose pages together.
 
Following increased industrialization and mechanical innovations, printers began to print and bind books. Technological advances meant books were cheaper to make, while increased literacy rates meant more people were reading them. 
 
During this period, too, we saw the first books resembling modern mass market paperbacks, called penny dreadfuls. They revolutionized the role of book covers and cover art: they were made to be judged off their covers, with beautiful, zany full-colour pieces decorating their fronts. 
 
While we may not want our novels to look like Black Bess, the emergence of coloured paperback covers revolutionized how we view book covers: they’re not merely protective slabs of wood, but a canvas for art.
 
It’s essential to recognize the importance of cover art and how it relates to our experience reading a novel. You may hold a particular fondness for one edition of Harry Potter as it’s the one you read as a child; its cover is not only bound to the book, but also to your experience of the book.
 
Book covers are instilled with meaning far greater than their composition. They’re an art form coloured by your interpretation of the book. 
 
The iconic cover of The Great Gatsby is beautiful on its own, but its significance shifts with your reading and becomes more moving. Its meaning is malleable and shaped by the story and how the reader interacts with it. 
 
That’s why covers are so profound: they’re a conversation between stories and art. They exist in virtue of each other, not in spite. One is necessary for the other, and both shape our understanding of the world and ourselves.
 
From Chaucer to Vonnegut, covers have been bound to books in more ways than one. Although there has been an unfortunate shift toward dull, lifeless cover art, these images have become no less important. 
 
A book’s beauty does not begin and end within its pages. The artistry inside must be reflected on the outside; perhaps then book covers might stand up to judgment.

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