Whose book and whose cover?

As the third edition of his debut collection of poems, Ossi di seppia, is about to be

published in 1931, the future Nobel Laureate Eugenio Mon tale writes to a close

friend: “my book of poems is coming out with a cover by Scipione that looks like

a Barilli cover. We will laugh at it. To me it seems like someone else’s book:’1

Now, Scipione – pseudonym of Gino Bonichi (1904-1933) – was himself

a poet as well as an illustrator and painter. For some reason, Scipione,s cover

caused Montale to declare that his book had become somebody else’s book. This

is the cover:

book cover design

The setting of many poems in Ossi di seppia is the seaside landscape of Liguria,

where Montale was born and grew up. Presumably, the sea-horse silhouetted in

red is a reference to Liguria. The light brown of the background recall the colour

of sand, and the scorched landscape – with its dog day heat and scarce shade –

that was so familiar to Mon tale.

Yet Montale disliked this cover, comparing it to the cover Scipione designed

for another book, Barillts Il paese de[ melodramma, published the year before

4 Re-Covered Rose

Ossi di seppia by the same publisher.2 An important issue arises from Montale’s

reaction. Should there be a relationship of <fidelity’ or <integrity’ between a cover

and its book? Also, should that relationship be safeguarded as recognition of

the intentions of the author? And should the prospective reader, who may not

be familiar with the text, be taken into account? These are the concerns of the

present study.

Clearly, by negotiating between the verbal and the visual, book covers reveal

the cultural assumptions of their designers, of their authors and of the readers of

the text. However, authors seldom have influence over the cover for their books

because, in the real world, multiple paratextual influences intervene.

While there may be truth in the advice not to judge a book by its cover, this

study investigates how to judge a cover by its book.

The book cover provides the (potential) reader with a visual summary of

the book’s contents. Some writers, like Justine Larbalestier (the author of Liar,

discussed below), go as far as to say that covers change how people read books.

A discussion of how far this is true lies beyond the scope of this study but

there are clearly two sequential links to consider: the first, between the text

and the cover; and the second, between the cover and the actual or potential

reader. This study treats the first link, between the text and the cover, as an act

of translation.

So what does it mean to dress up an authorised text in the (often colourful)

clothes of a cover? What issues should inform and what criteria should be used

to assess that «singular imaginative space,,?3 As Peter McDonald observes, ((h istories

of textual culture make special demands on how we construe the spaces of

culture.”4 Sydney Shep further suggests that, «the movement of people, ideas, and

texts and the relationship between cosmopolitanism and vernacularization must

be put centre-stage in international, post-globalisation, studies of the book.,,S

It is reasonable, therefore, to investigate how book covers translate the verbal

signs of the text into a (predominantly) non verbal sign-system of culturallyencoded

images. Intersemiotic translation has recently been analysed by scholars

from film studies, translation studies and visual studies – and in particular by

scholars of social semiotics. Semiotic analysis in general and social semiotics in

particular are clearly important to understand the grammar of visual communication

and thus evaluate the narrative, conceptual and social representations

embedded in book cover design.6 According to the social semiotic theory of representation,

signs are «motivated conjunctions of signifiers (forms) and signified

(meanings):’ This standpoint differs from traditional semiology where «motivation

is not usually related to the act of sign-making, but defined in terms of an

intrinsic relationship between the signifier and the signified:’ This view of signs

Introduction 5

and sign-making can be fruitfully applied to the study of book covers. Book cover

design, in fact, can be looked at as a motivated conjunction of signifiers and signified

– all the more complex because of the number of variables and fun ctions

involved: the intentions of the author; the expectations of the reader; the strategies

of the publisher; the creativity of the designer; the traditions of the culture;

the trends of the market ( on a local as well as global scale).

Interestingly, however, recent research in book cover design does not rely on

social semiotics but on alternative disciplines and knowledge. Current developments

in the cognitive neuroscience of creativity, for example, may take our understanding

and study of the interaction of words and images further still.7 This

book may be a first step in that direction.

In order to concentrate on the relationship of cover design and the text, a

competition was arranged for the production of a ‘new’ book cover for Umberto

Eco’s Il nome della rosa. In profound contrast to the real world, the brief excluded

all references to a target audience or market. The brief was a plot summary taken

from Wikipedia and prospective competitors were free to read the book or not as

they chose. The competition was adver tised via the internet and attracted entries

from many countries. A selection of these entries, chosen by the judges of the

competition, is included in this book.

The question addressed in this book is, how honestly does each cover reflect

the text? To assess each cover, a form of analysis and evaluation – the ((grid» –

was devised. As expected, this analysis proved difficult and there is scope for

further work.
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