Saturday, December 10, 2011

a travel book by its cover

In conjunction with a list of a hundred "most celebrated travel books", the travel writing site World Hum included a slide show of “Five Great Travel Book Covers”.

They are all nice covers, but none of them have the dramatic or evocative impact that we are accustomed to on the dust jacket of a novel.

Looking through my own bookcase, I find a similar situation.  The covers are much too earnest, much too concrete to the traveler and his journey.  Too many are based on photographs taken on the spot and carry the suggestion that what is important in the book is the place visited and not the writing or perhaps not even the travel in getting there.  And if the writer is not someone I know and want to read  --  or he didn’t go someplace that I am currently interested in  --  I am unlikely to pick up the book.

Better is the approach of the Oxford cover for Abroad: British Literary traveling between the wars, by Paul Fussell, with its massive looming black bulk of an ocean liner seen from water level, like one of those 1930s posters.  Or Little, Brown’s cover for Evelyn Waugh’s When the Going Was Good, showing Waugh, tweedy, with a pipe and glass of porter in an armchair, staring out impishly, as if he were thinking of something fiendishly clever and is obviously the sort of person whose stories you would like to hear, wherever he had gone.

Perhaps the cover of a travel book presents some peculiar difficulty, some restraint on the imagination not present in the cover art of a novel.  Some writers, it is said, think about the design of their cover before they even write anything, much as they imagine themselves being interviewed fawningly on NPR, but I confess that I have no idea what a dust jacket for my own writing might look like, though I don't think my subject matter gives itself much to photography.  That's what publishers used to get paid for.

[The link above apparently doesn't work anymore, but you won't miss much by not seeing it, which was pretty much the point I was making.   But look at <worldhum> anyway; it's a nice site.]

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