I knew that in order to win the heart of Airman First Class Frances Green, I’d have to appear bookish, for she often spoke fondly of books as heavy and dense as cinder blocks. A plan formed, and was carried out: I went to the base library and borrowed Naked Lunch. You know, the bright yellow edition with the cool black font that runs vertically up the front cover. A stark contrast. How could she miss me sitting outside reading a book that looked like a highway sign?
Unfortunately, back then I didn’t understand William S. Burroughs. (Okay, I still don’t.) And I didn’t win the heart of Airman First Class Frances Green. But I learned a valuable lesson, one that has stayed with me through the years: book covers are cool.
Here are four of my favorites. I tried to do different categories so they weren’t all short story collections (those have the best covers).
Come On All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder. Back when I used to haunt the Iowa City Public Library, I picked out a few poetry books solely by cover art. The idea was that if I flipped through the books, I’d only select what was familiar and comfortable. As a fiction writer, I recognized the raw power and magical ability poems possess, capable of factor five mindwarping in just a few brief lines.
Something about the simplicity of this cover’s design drew me in. I like the urban image, but also how empty the buildings feel. All the lights are on, but we can’t even see so much as a silhouette. The artist is doing so much with negative space, apropos for a poetry collection titled Come On All You Ghosts. You’re probably wondering about my favorite poem or line, or maybe you aren’t, but here it is, the closing of “Poem for Hannah”: You were born to feel a way / you don’t have a word for.
Redeployment by Phil Klay. I already used this as my favorite summer read, so let me explain why it works so well here by asking a question. Is the camouflage-adorned serviceman in the photo coming home from war or going there? Presumably he’s headed back out since the title of the collection is Redeployment, but you really can’t tell for certain because the same outfit is worn for both occasions. (Or at least they did when I was in the USAF.) But the eponymous story follows a marine as he attempts, with limited success, to reintegrate back into society. It’s not just PTSD, the narrator explains, but a reframed mentality, a hyper-awareness that you cannot remove when you take off your camo uniform and put on a t-shirt and shorts.
As I teach English 110, I often catch myself saying things like, “How many students have been to the base theater?” Meaning, of course, the campus theater. I haven’t lived on an Air Force base for five years, but even that small language element is ingrained in my everyday speech. Redeployment‘s book cover, although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, conveys a lot of these subtleties that persist in the space between over here and over there.
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. Ah, the golden age of the crime fiction. Check out that lurid photo of Cora Papadakis, dreamer, schemer, with long yellow hair and the shirt that God made Eve wear after she got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. The mirrored serpents trailing out behind apples should have warned Frank Chambers, future home-wrecker and conspirator/murderer, but just like the drifting narrator we readers are drawn in by the charm of this visual delight. You couldn’t get away with this over-sexualized, borderline misogynistic book cover today (unless you publish at Harlequin), and I think that’s why I like it so much. It’s a promise to the reader that delivers: this novel is fun, full of danger, and flirts with the devil inside us.
Young Adult Fiction:
Breaking the Fall by Michael Cadnum. My parents gave me a lecture for reading this YA novel about two bored high-schoolers that break into people’s houses and take a trophy to prove their fearlessness. Usually they ignored the piles of books I brought home, but that time they took an interest. I’m guessing that, upon seeing this mesmerizing book cover, they were just as compelled as I was to pick it up and dig in. If only I’d used that defense years ago! Mom, Dad, relax. The book cover made me do it.
Lucas Shepherd is a first-year MFA Fiction student at the University of New Mexico.