Portraying a Book
Carl Rollyson’s current column is an extensive critique of an upcoming biography of Adolf Hitler by a biographer and military historian who takes a humanistic view of the man. It’s a controversial approach as Carl discusses, but what intrigued me as I readied the column for its publication was the book’s cover, especially in comparison with the covers of the other books to which Carl referred in the column.
The subject of Adolf Hitler is a difficult one. But it is one that continues to impact history, and it always will. Therefore, the man will continue to be the subject of books, and I think the way he is portrayed on some of those books is something to be considered because we do judge books by their covers regardless of what the subject is.
What interested me about these covers is often what holds me as regards book covers in general: Why are certain images and typefaces chosen, and why do we so quickly judge books on them? Look again at Stoli’s cover on the far left. As Carl points out, the photograph “captures Hitler’s sense of himself as a savior dedicated to securing Germany’s future.” And it is. A study in black and white, it is a consummate image of a self-confident leader sure of his vision and of his role. If Hitler didn’t fashion history as he did this could be the cover for one of those “leadership” books often put out by political and business leaders. The typeface is sober, strong, unassuming but powerful. It is a cover that says this book is about Hitler as leader, not as evil personified.
A. N. Wilson’s cover is more dangerous. The photograph is strong but there is a strong element of menace in it. Without even reading it I can say that the biographer had a specific mindset before he even put the first words to paper.
Ian Kershaw’s book cover is, to my mind, an unfortunate one unless he was intending to talk about Hitler as sick and crazy. The shadows highlight Hitler’s intense eyes and the mustache is eerily reminiscent of the villains in early silent pictures who placed tied-up heroines on railroad tracks. It is discomforting not only because you sense the criminal power of the man but because it is so robust. The title—it’s interesting that all three books used red in or around their titles and sans serif fonts—is so direct as to be in your face, and the surrounding brownish coloration is, I assume, a direct visual association to the brown shirts worn by Sturnabteilung (SA) or stormtroopers who played a key role in his rise to power.
Unpleasant as these particular books may be to consider, it is worth thinking about them and what they tell us. Book covers are potent things. There’s a reason why publishers pay good cover artists what they do. They are designed to be marketing tools, to entice consumers to pick up a book and open it. This is not unique to books, of course; every marketed product, every website, every tangible thing in fact, needs to have an image. But it’s what that image says in its nonverbal way that has us pick a book up or pass it by. And while I am not going to pick up any of these books neither am I going to forget their covers.
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Until next week, read well, read often and read on!