Friday, March 23, 2012

For all that beauty that doth cover thee

In my last post, I mentioned Harry Flashman and the Flashman series, a quick little diversion by George MacDonald Fraser I recently read.  But I never mentioned why I read it, and that is a simple answer; the cover.

While we've always been told to never judge a book by its cover, nobody ever said anything about selecting a book by its cover.  In fact, not only are covers designed to do exactly this, but they're also very successful.  A good cover can pull people in and make them interested enough, in a book they know nothing about, to purchase a copy while at their local book store.

This is exactly what happened for me, after I had passed the Flashman series many, many times at the book store, often pulling a copy out to take a look.  Each of the fifteen or so books in the series features Harry Flashman, the series protagonist, on the cover, usually in some sort of exotic outfit, usually with some sort of exotic woman.

Evey time I stared at one of the Flashman covers, I couldn't help but be intrigued.  Who is this mysterious character, surrounded by beautiful women, apparently visiting every corner of the Earth?  Why does he have one eye-brow raised as if he knows something I don't, while wearing that shit-eating grin on his face?  Soon, I'd think to myself, I have to read these books and find out the answers to these questions!  Of course it wasn't just the covers, but it was because of the cover art that I read the back of the book, and thought they didn't sound half bad.  But long story, short; I wouldn't have ever read the Flashman series if it hadn't been for the pictures on the cover.

This isn't the first time I've read a book, based almost exclusively on the cover however.  Last spring I read The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, which I may have been interested in because it was about books, but really it was because of the cover.   The shadowy figure standing in front of a wooden shelf, filled with old books, conjured up quite the image in my head.  I pictured this sophisticated man, perhaps a mysterious Keyser Soze-type, visiting musty used-bookstores around the world, in search of the rarest and most treasured books ever printed.  I pictured the dapper thief roaming the world looking for his treasures, using elaborate cons and sophisticated robbery techniques to acquire them.

Of course it turns out it was just some loser from California, who stole valuable books by committing credit card fraud.  And he wasn't even interested in the books themselves, only the status they represented, figuring people would think he was smart if he had a rare book collection in his garage at his house outside of Fresno.  I mean, the guy wore sweat pants. Sweat pants!  Disappointing to say the least.  And all of this happened, because I liked the cover and let my imagination run wild.  I suppose the marketing worked. (This isn't to say the book was bad, it was interesting, it's just not what I was imagining based on the cover art).

Flashman was much closer to meeting my expectations, but still fell short in a way.  While Harry was an incredible cad, I was expecting even more, based solely on the various covers.  I wanted him to be so over the top, that when he was anything short of that, I felt a little disappointed.  But then again, how could any book meet the lofty praise I had established based on that cover?  I pictured Harry being to a real soldier, as Austin Powers was to James Bond; a complete caricature.  Instead, the author decided to go with a hint of realism.  I guess that's understandable.

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