Penguin classics get a makeover

Not everyone loves the inventive type covers on this new series from the famous publisher

Penguin classics get a makeover

For Penguin books, one picture isn’t worth a thousand words; it’s more like the other way around. The British publisher is about to launch a new batch of classic reprints (in collaboration with the AIDS awareness group RED) whose covers have few of the paintings or other images that used to seduce us into buying Anna Karenina. Instead, the covers feature quotes from the novels, with words arranged in unusual patterns. Illustrations are rarely used; when they appear, they’re kept small, like a cartoon swamped by the words on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. Mark Sinclair, an editor for the British design magazine Creative Review, says that this typographical approach is still a new thing: “It’s unusual to see text all over a cover.”

Not that these new Penguins, which will appear in bookstores in May, are the first books to de-emphasize pictures. They’re not even the first Penguin books that use this approach: when the company launched in the ’30s, most of its covers had nothing much on them except the title, the author, and the cute bird who served as the company mascot. More recently, other publishers have tried to let words do the heavy work on the front. Faber & Faber recently published a series of poetry reprints with almost bare covers, creating an emotional impact through colour and letters. And before J.D. Salinger died, he insisted that new reprints of his books could have nothing on them except his name and the title.

But most of those books, including the early Penguins, eliminate pictures as part of a simplified, stripped-down approach. The new Penguins are the exact opposite, using words to create some elaborate, ornate graphic designs in the tradition of works of art like A Humument, where artist Tom Phillips made new designs out of old pages from a Victorian novel. Nathan Burton’s design for Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth takes a quote from the novel—“Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well dressed till we drop”—and rearranges the words with fancy, elaborate type, making the whole thing look like a poster for one of the society events the novel’s heroine might have to attend. The cover for Henry James’s psychological horror story The Turn of the Screw arranges the words in patterns that are almost as confused as the main character’s state of mind. Sinclair, whose blog commenters were mostly ecstatic over the covers, notes that fonts and typefaces are almost a visual art in themselves: “People appreciate the research and craft that goes into selecting the appropriate faces.” Because they combine the power of words and pictures, they may have a more powerful impact than normal illustrations.

Also, by making the words the star of the covers, Penguin may be hoping to show that the actual content of the books is still fresh and accessible. The Dracula cover takes a description of the famous vampire from Bram Stoker himself, and makes the author’s own words look as sharp, angular and spooky as the character he created. Using a painting of a menacing figure, like Penguin did in its last reprint of Dracula, doesn’t say much about the non-visual thrills we’re going to find inside; it could reinforce the stereotype of old novels as hard-to-read relics. Confronted with a cover that’s based on the excitement of the actual text, Sinclair explains, shoppers may “realize they can actually engage with it and that it is a pleasure to read.”

The potential downside is that the reprints could be accused of trivializing the words. Raquel Laneri of Forbes wrote that she “hated” the new covers, finding them “overdesigned, pretentious and completely unrelated to the novels they are supposed to represent.” From that point of view, the cover for Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, where a page from the book has circles and dots scribbled over it, could be seen as making Conrad’s writing seem ugly. And Laneri argued that The House of Mirth, a powerfully dramatic novel, shouldn’t be represented by “ironically girly fonts” that make it seem like a light comedy.

On the other hand, if the look of the cover isn’t quite right, there’s always the text itself to pull customers in. Sinclair says that a quote “acts like the cover lines we use in magazines, or on the back of books, that tell you what to expect inside.” If a tabloid put words like “she grasped him, throwing her head back while burning lights and passionate smiles flickered across her face” on the cover, it might help sell the story of illicit romance. But will it work for Zola’s Thérèse Raquin?