We’ve all heard the saying: don’t judge a book by its cover. This is of course meant to be taken metaphorically. It is meant to reinforce the notion that one should not form an opinion on something based on outward appearances, rather you should look deeper to find the true nature of that something. Taken literally it means that a book might have a pretty cover but that cover may or may not have something to do with the story inside. For my purposes today I’m going to take the literal route.
You see although I know not to judge a book by its cover I have on occasion done just that. And one example of when I’ve done that is with The Chronicles of Amber.
The Chronicles of Amber is a 10 book fantasy/sci-fi series written by Roger Zelazny. It is a complicated mash-up of genres that attempts to deconstruct and subvert fantasy and sci-fi tropes while simultaneously reinforcing them. It deals with inter-dimensional travel into shadow worlds that bends and questions the nature of reality. It does this by following the political and familial intrigue within a semi-immortal royal family that uses magic playing cards as portals to different realms. It’s kinda like Game of Thrones meets Philip K. Dick on acid. And that description does not do the story justice in the least. It’s complex and unique. Basically go read it, it is really, really good.
But that is not what I want to talk about.
What I want to talk about is how a book cover can entice you into buying a book simply by the interesting and beautiful images it portrays and at times mislead you into thinking the story inside may be quite different than what those visuals may be selling. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As a scifi/fantasy fan I will admit to buying books (quite a few actually) simply because the cover was compelling or downright cool. And in the 60s and 70s scifi/fantasy book covers were an art form in and of themselves. So I bought and read many books simply because I liked the picture on the front. And many times though it was not what I expected it turned out to be something I thoroughly enjoyed. And sometimes loved.
Case in point: The Chronicles of Amber.
When I was a teenager I brought a collection of of Amber books from a second hand shop and it had this cover.
Now does that scream “complicated mash-up of genres that attempts to deconstruct and subvert fantasy and sci-fi tropes while simultaneously reinforcing them” to you?
Now when I picked this up – and I almost didn’t – I assumed it would be a high fantasy novel along the lines of a Robert E. Howard story or a John Cater of Mars type of thing. I was completely wrong and pleasantly surprised. The Amber books became and remain one of my favorite series right up there with Lord of the Rings and Dune. Yeah, they are that good.
But the thing is I almost didn’t pick it up because of that damned cover. I remember looking at it – it was faced outward on the self, a good indication that an employee must like the book and wanted to showcase it so that made me pause – and thinking oh that looks like a story I will have no interest in reading (actually that was not exactly the way I phrased it in my head, the words I used contained much more sarcasm and expletives – but the meaning was pretty much the same) and began to move on. Still, I did double back and eventually gave it a chance and I am really glad I did.
But that cover. I found that art style – that Frank Frazetta, barbarian mythological hyper-realism – to be indicative of a particular type of genre I’m not really into. I ended up buying that book in spite of the cover rather than because of it. But how many people did buy it because of the art? How many were disappointed? How many, like me, were pleasantly surprised and now cherish that book? I find that question fascinating.
And over the years I have from time to time checked in of the various republished covers of The Chronicles of Amber to see what later versions were like. How would different artists and publishers try to capture the essence of this epic? And I have always been surprised by how it has been interpreted.
Take a look at this selection of covers for the first book in the series Nine Princes in Amber:
Just look at the range of styles for just that one book. It ranges from high fantasy, to speculative scifi, to romance novel, to what looks like a book about pirates, to what can only be describes as self-help, religious meditation. And granted all of those elements are in the Amber novels. (Well not self-help, religious meditation – although I guess you could use them that way if you were so inclined, who am I to judge?) But the real fascination I have with the variety of styles and interpretation you see in all these covers is: how many people like me were put off or misled by the picture on the front only to be amazed and astounded by the real story inside?
I guess the whole point of this article, the thing I want to say is…well, don’t judge a book by it’s cover. The old adage is true, yes, but I want to take it a step further. Not only should you not judge a book by it’s cover but you should take a chance and go out of your way to pick up something that is not your typical choice. If you see a thing that you are initially turned off by – give it a shot anyway. Why not? The worst thing that could happen is you don’t like it. The best thing that could happen is you find a classic that you will enjoy for the rest of your life. Most likely it will be something in between but hey variety, spice of life, that whole thing.
Or maybe to put it another way – do judge a book by it’s cover, then go ahead and buy it anyway. I might surprise you just what you find.
Do you have a story about a misleading cover that lead you to a story you were not expecting?
Leave it in the comments below.