Review: Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Book Covers by Margaret C. Sullivan

Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Book Covers - Margaret C. Sullivan

I won a copy of this book from the publisher in a Booklikes giveaway.

I have to say that the first thing I judged about this book was its cover. Obviously. You can’t write a book about book covers without having a good one yourself, it just wouldn’t work. But the cover is lovely, if not groundbreaking, and looks especially nice sitting on a coffee table for casual perusal.

Cover to Cover is a visual history of the covers that have graced-and disgraced-Jane Austen’s work, from her first printing to the newest editions (as of 2014). It is not comprehensive, but it gives a very good range of design choices, showing how each generation of publishers has approached Austen differently and how marketing and aesthetic changes have reshaped her work for each new generation of readers. There is quite an array, beginning with the plain boards of the first printings, and moving through the first “scholarly” and collectors editions, the mass market oddities meant to capture the great unwashed, the rather dull “large manor house” academic covers, and even some of the new designs that are emerging as print books try to recapture the reading public as objects, like vinyl in the age of digital. Sullivan gives us large, full-color pictures of gorgeous (and not so gorgeous) Jane Austen covers, along with a helpful overview of Austen’s publication history, and the art/pop culture movements that influenced particular design choices.

There are some really horrible covers in here. Romance and gothic-inspired ones from the 60’s and 70’s are the absolute worst, but the tween-oriented, Twilight-inspired ones from just a few years ago are also terrible. Sullivan gives them the benefit of the doubt; they may have pulled in a few unsuspecting vampire-loving teenagers. And this is my only real complaint: for a book that contains so many egregious sins against the novels, there is very little snark, and I was really hoping for a brutal teardown of the worst examples. Sullivan is not totally supportive of each design choice, but she was certainly kinder than I would be.

Jane Austen’s work is in the public domain, and has been for some time, so there really is a plethora of diverse options out there. From (misspelled) ebook “covers” to $500 collector’s items, there are more choices than any one book could ever cover and still remain interesting. The structure of this book, and the research and editing process required to balance chronology with interest, is commendable. Her style is clear and obviously well-researched, so no complaints there either. No complaints at all, really, except maybe a little lack of the witty edge I’m always hoping for in anything pertaining to Jane Austen.

I usually have trouble enjoying books that just tackle the surface of Austen’s work, but this provides enough of the writing and printing history of the books to keep it more interesting than a mere pictorial tour. It is not densely academic, but like I mentioned earlier, it isn’t meant to be comprehensive, nor should it be. I would recommend this to any design nerd, book nerd, Austen nerd, or combination thereof without reservation. It’s got Jane Austen covered. (Sorry).


Cross-posted at Goodreads: Jane Austen Cover to Cover