August 21, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Holly Hagman
The scents of brewing coffee and fresh pages have always been a welcomed comfort. Somehow, whenever I enter the doors of a Barnes & Noble – or any bookstore, library, or a friend’s home with well-stocked shelves – I am suspended in time. Simultaneously, the world beyond the books chugs along in rhythmed ticks and pauses, waiting as I lose myself in others’ stories, buried in their words.
Before I can dive into a narrative, immersed in the ink, I study the cover. A long time ago, I was attracted to the sans-serif font capital letters of a new release in the YA section. The cover of this paperback book – stark white with light green hues around the thick, black lettering – had an intentional hole in its middle. The hole was an imperfect oval with one or two lumps, reminiscent of a paint splotch on a canvas had this particular paint contained acid as an ingredient. This cover led me to choose the book from the shelf, read the summary, thumb through the first few pages use my smartphone to see if the author had a website, and shell out the seventeen dollars to nestle said book between other books, also with intriguing covers, on my own personal shelf.
My high school English teacher always told us not to judge books by their covers. He was a middle-aged man who lectured with his leather shoes perched on his desk, a baby blue baseball cap resting backwards on his head matching the underlying stripes of his plaid shirts. He would tell us about author history – small facts about the birthplace of Eugene O’Neill or why fans of Sylvia Plath tend to hate Ted Hughes; information that we would memorize for pop quizzes. Most would discard this information later, but author backgrounds always seemed important to me, like a glimpse into their lives would reveal the secrets between the lines.
When we studied Catcher in the Rye, all of the books we received had different, handmade covers: paper bags scrawled over in ugly cursive, poorly doodled carousel horses, an unfortunate rendering of Holden’s red hat. Symbols that appeared in the novel danced in a chaotic harmony around the classroom. The book covers underneath these student-made layers were hard cardboard shells, and they were completely blank, except for the title, centered in a modest typewriter font.
Salinger was a favorite of my English teacher; he often joked about moving to rural New Hampshire, where Salinger fled after the fame of Catcher became too much for him to handle. He also told the class that our friend J. D. requested that his books be printed without a cover design to prevent preconceptions about his work. The famous red cover with the demented horses in the foreground and yellow text was added later, after the book was already popular. He wanted his words, his pages of prose, to stand alone, to be enough.
We all want our prose to be enough for our readers. Hopefully, for the most part, they are enough to keep them engaged, to keep them turning pages. However, the cover design is instrumental in getting them to open those pages, to look at our words, to spend money at a bookstore, to sit the book on our shelves at home and read it even if the attraction to the cover is where our affair with the book ends. That YA novel that I bought was about horrific acid rainstorms that terrorized a teenage heroine who could do very little to save anyone from nature’s wrath. My relationship with the text ended as quickly as it began, but the cover did its job. It got me to buy the book.
I hope that when I publish my first book, that people like the cover. I want someone to stop at the bookstore as they sip their coffee and be intrigued by the font choice on the binding. When they hold it in their hands, I want the texture of the paper or cardboard to be smooth and rich, the colors to be soothing and reflective of the narrative within. I want the cover artist to get so much credit for wrapping my words in their passion, for surrounding art with art.
My English teacher did move away after I graduated. I visited his classroom once after he was gone, and his presence could only be felt in those homemade paper covers for the Catcher books that rested on the shelves. Even though that YA book I bought didn’t lead me to purchase the whole series, I still notice its binding among my other books. There is a power there that I cannot explain, a magical magnetism that engages the reader before any pages are turned. I hope to be captivated by more covers as I add books to my shelves, an ethereal attraction only to be enhanced by the words inside.
Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with her BA in creative writing and her MAT in secondary education. She has also earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University. She has been an assistant editor for Brevity, the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit, and is currently a nonfiction editor for Variant Literature. She enjoys collecting coffee mugs, cuddling her cats, and defending the use of the Oxford comma. Her work can be viewed on hollyhagmanwrites.com.