Got it Covered

by Amy Elkins

Virginia Woolf, working with her husband at their Hogarth Press, recalls publishing Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude:

We have sent off our first copies this evening, after spending the afternoon in glueing [sic.] & covering. They surprised us when done by their professional look—the stiff blue cover pleases us particularly. (Diary Vol. 1, 165).

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Something about a pleasing book cover excites the reader’s imagination right away, and some book covers seem to take on a life of their own; look no further than the merchandise aisle at your local big box book retailer for The Great Gatsby, A Clockwork Orange, The Cather in the Rye, or To the Lighthouse covers plastered on mugs and totes. For my course on the novel as a genre called “On Beauty,” I invited Jeenee Lee, a Twin Cities-based book designer who has done work for a range of clients, including Graywolf Press, to speak with my students about book covers and visual design principles. With this training, the students embarked on their own book design adventures, making a cover for one of the novels we’d read in the class, writing an artist’s statement blurb, and presenting their books in Macalester’s Rare Books Room. The books are now on display in the library’s entry.

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This assignment enriched our discussion of beauty because it put the conceptual apparatus of literary interpretation into material practice. Some students expressed surprise with how difficult it was to make this leap from an idea to the physical object. Many of the protagonists we followed over the course of the semester experienced a similar journey as they moved between desire, creativity, or critique and the real world. As scholars, we face the challenge of translating our ideas into action, and art proves time and again to be an invaluable training ground.

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