U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Judging A Book By Its Cover

I just returned today from a long weekend celebrating my mother’s 75th birthday, so I’m not going to make as substantive an addition to the fascinating Age of Fracture-inspired conversations that have been taking place on this blog as I would have liked (that’ll have to wait until next week).

But I happened to bring Rodgers’s book along with me on my trip and spent most of my plane ride today reading it. And though I have a lot of thoughts about it to share, I’m going to limit my post today to a minor point that hasn’t–so far as I know–been mentioned here or in other discussions about the book: its cover.

The cover is in most ways terrific. It’s visually striking. And it seems to illustrate the book’s title and theme.  It’s a fractured image…in red, white, (black), and blue.  I also love the way the title and author’s name reflect its colors.

But there’s one problem with this cover that perhaps shouldn’t bug me, but does:  the image is a detail of a Study for a Drawing by Stuart Davis, a painter most associated with the 1940s and 1950s, who passed away in 1964; this particular work was made in 1955.  Especially since no dates appear on the cover of the book, it seems to me to be an odd choice for the cover of a book about the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.  Davis is a familiar enough artist with a distinctive enough style that, at least to me, this cover says 1940s not 1970s (and beyond). And there are surely works of art from the period covered by the book that illustrate fracture equally well.

All of this led me to think about what makes for a good cover of an academic history book.  We should all be so lucky as to have anything as well designed as Age of Fracture‘s cover grace our own books.  Incidentally, Dan Rodgers has had two visually effective covers in a row. Atlantic Crossings also has a wonderfully powerful cover.  In this case, the image is from the period on which the book focuses, although it doesn’t entirely illustrate what the book is about; it’s more a riff on the book’s excellent title.

Of course, getting an image that actually does in some sense illustrate the book’s theme can be tricky, especially in intellectual history.  Still it’s occasionally possible to do so.

One of my classmates in graduate school used to joke that if you closely studied the cover of Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound,  you didn’t have to read the book.  In saying this, he wasn’t insulting May; in fact, he liked the book a lot. He just thought that its cover perfectly illustrated May’s argument.

Since USIH seems to be in a list-making mood these days, what do you think are the great book covers in American intellectual history…and what makes them so good?

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I love Noah Feldman’s cover for Divided By God. It shows a generic holy book that has been cleaved into four parts. Each quadrant then has a different set of religious symbols. It is an absolutely arresting image, and works great with the title. Technically, this is a work of legal history and theory, rather than intellectual history proper, but it still comes within the orbit of intellectual history.

  2. David: That is indeed a great cover.

    Ben: Sadly, I don’t have much to offer. Like David, my immediate thoughts on covers drift away from intellectual history. For instance, the cover of Moreton’s *To Serve God and Wal-Mart* is excellent—a vertical fade/transition from a colorful Wal-mart aisle, dominated by materials goods and signs, to a vision of the heavens as the ceiling for a Wal-Mart (a great contrast from the bland/ugly warehouse view that dominate the ceiling of most stores). – TL

  3. I do like the covers of Rodgers’ most recent books.

    Three caveats: 1) Please excuse the lack of purity of my intellectual history credentials; 2) the vast majority of books that I read are library editions that lack cover art; 3) as a consequence of #1, I’m going to go a bit far afield of Ben’s challenge to his readers.

    To start from the opposite side of the spectrum, I dislike the cover art of Martin Melosi’s Sanitary City, even though, from a technological point of view, I find the image fascinating, and even though I value highly the scholarship between the covers.

    I generally like David Drummond’s covers.

    The cover to Jamie Benedickson’s The Culture of Flushing is excellent: simple and to-the-point.

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