A Cover Is Not A Book…Part 2


It is perhaps the most imaginatively redesigned book of them all. George Orwell’s 1984 has become a symbol of surveillance and oppression that speaks out to everyone, even though it now reads very much as a reflection of its time. The US pulp cover above is probably the strangest attempt made at portraying the events of the book – I’m not sure what the pile of bricks is about, possibly an incredibly prescient comment on Trump’s wall? Pulps can sell anything the way they want. I once owned a paperback copy of Boswell’s journals that had been repackaged as a ‘bawdy’ Barbara Cartland-style romance.

Over the years and across international boundaries the same visual symbols from 1984 crop up on the covers. The all-seeing eye, the clock striking thirteen (the one above is a favourite), censorship, designs that invoke paranoia. Big Brother appears in various forms, not all human, and of course ended up as the name of a trashy reality TV show whose participants had not heard of Orwell.

The rallying cry of 1984 is always picked up by the young, who adapt its dystopia in myriad ways. It was brave of Penguin to remove the title completely from one of their paperback editions but why not? The visual mnemonic does the job brilliantly. Penguin had enough brand identity on its old paperbacks to be able to play with the imagery. The one below has a touch of Quatermass at a time when British SF was hugely successful.

The book’s sales have dipped and risen over the years, but soared once more upon Trump’s arrival. Still, its old problems remain, even within its ‘classic’ status; Winston Smith, led on by a wildly dangerous Julia, is a man doomed from his first free thought. He was always a cipher because Orwell intended him as an everyman – it’s what he needs to be for identification purposes.

So if you don’t have strong characters to put on the cover, how do you depict the book’s ideology? You can cite the slogans or pick representative images for the ideas, as designers do with Kafka, and the title is a designer’s dream, forming a logo of its own. It’s interesting that nobody picks Room 101 or the caged rat as a cover, which would surely prove more visceral.

Many of us can probably date the first time we read the novel by the cover it had then. It has always surprised me that other ‘classic’ reads have not achieved this level of design status – why hasn’t Dickens been given such treatment? Surely Hogarth’s pictures would make an appealing match even if the time periods are slipped. Perhaps only books with timeless universal themes can pull off the trick. 1984 barely has real characters and in its hero we simply get the latest in a long line of British wimps that include Guy Crouchback, Charles Ryder and Patrick Melrose. The images depict the themes because they have to; imagine a version with Winston Smith as a hero and you go right back to the pulp cover. The artist is trying to colour in a blank.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been granted an image made popular by its television incarnation, so that the white hood is now synonymous with the idea of female oppression. And of course the Guy Fawkes mask now associated with all rebellious causes stems from the graphic novel of ‘V For Vendetta.

Perhaps big ideas are more fun to visualise than the interior lives of characters. One thing is sure; the symbolic value of 1984 will continue to be reinterpreted for each new generation.



18 comments on “A Cover Is Not A Book…Part 2”

  1. SimonB says:

    Thanks for these two cover posts. It always fascinates me how and why book covers change all the time, but record sleeves hardly ever do. I’m coming close to 4,000 albums and can only think of half a dozen at most that have been re-released with different sleeve art (not counting those changed by censorship watchdogs or with the original art reduced to a square in one corner as part of a label- or artist-wide reissue programme putting a standard format around it). That then goes to root the music in its time to me and enables a band’s evolution to be traced. Whereas you can unknowingly pick up a book based on a cover in whatever the current style for the genre happens to be only to find it is 10, 50, 100 or more years old.

    I used to be obsessive about matching sets, to the point of resisting buying a book in the wrong format even if it was cheaper than the edition that matched the rest on the shelf. But when long-running series I was collecting changed cover artist/style midway through their original publication making that impossible I finally concluded that I was wanting the insides not the outsides. So now I will skip between vintage paperback, modern re-issue, Kindle or whatever to follow a story.

    I’m just glad really that I am not a completionist who has to own every cover as well as an e version or tattered ex-library copy to actually read while the rest sit on a shelf.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    I recently picked up three John Buchan novels in Penguin format. All three have watercolour paintings by Kenneth Wynn and all three have direct reference to the stories. They also definitely refer to the time period – 1920’s.
    I don’t recommend Buchan’s novels, by the way, unless you’re braced for racist, English above everyone else propaganda, but I learned early on to erase those elements and the stories connect me to my father who warned me before I read The 39 Steps.

  3. admin says:

    The only censored album cover I remember – at least, I assume it was censored, was the notorious Blind Faith album with the pubescent naked girl holding the plane. Very dubious!

  4. snowy says:

    I think Buchan’s reputation has been tarnished by a misreading of what were written as works of ‘sensational’ fiction. Quotes being lifted out of context, mis-attributed as the views of the author when he had put them in the mouths of villianous characters just to display their villainy.

    I don’t remember much about ‘Prester John’, but what I can cobble together from a quick read, the threat is a ‘native revolt’. But they are not the enemy, they are the pawns of evil Europeans.

    ‘The 39 Steps’ is labelled as anti-semitic, but there are several problems with this thesis. The plot point that gives this any credence doesn’t emerge from the hero or the narrator, [even if we accept those as proxies for the thoughts of the author, which I don’t, there are lots of flawed heroes who may hold views we don’t like, for reasons of narrative. ie. a thread to be resolved in Act III.] It comes from a minor character, dodgy British spy, the hero quickly learns this is a fabrication, being put about by a group of…. evil Europeans, [Germans with which there was a little local difficulty at the time of writing, 1915.]

    ‘Greenmantle’, set in the Ottoman Empire … have a guess who is really up to naughty stuff? Here is a clue, they are fond of pork sausages, overly complicated drinking vessels and pointy hats.

    If they written as propaganda, they should be viewed in that light, understanding that they had a function other than being just entertainment. The alternative is that they were produced with an eye to the commercial market. [Authors have to eat!]

    [I can feel this getting over long! Wrap up quick! For a colonial relic he was rather keen on the idea that nations are improved by containing peoples from diverse backgrounds.

    For the curious of mind a well balanced bio will serve better than I can muster in 10 minutes.]

  5. Richard Burton says:

    Very interesting that there are so many 1984 covers, but no definitive one. Not like A Clockwork Orange, or Brave New World. Does Orwell create more and better mental images for his dystopia, giving designers a greater choice? Or has 1984 been a set text for more schoolkids than the others? Personally, even as an SUI (thanks Snowy!), I’ve no interest in trying for the definitive 1984 cover; if any author needs to cheer the f**k up, it’s Orwell. I’ll take my dystopia with horrorshow boots, a big glass of milk and a tiny kernel of hope.

  6. Vivienne says:

    I love that third example with the title blacked out. Never seen that but it would make me buy it straight away.

  7. Roger says:

    There is a kernel of hope to 1984, Richard Burton.
    The fact that it isn’t written in Newspeak is proof that the Party lost.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    I was amused by your mention of the excrementitious TV show ‘Big Brother’. I doubt very much whether the participants have ever heard of BOOKS, let alone the title of one. Isn’t the show a creation of Peter Bazalgette, whose ancestor was Joseph Bazalgette? If that is the case, then Joseph can be praised for getting the shit out of people’s homes – and Peter can be chided for bringing it back in again.

  9. Richard Burton says:

    Roger – many thanks! I hadn’t realised that about 1984, or I’d forgotten, or it wasn’t in my Letts Notes at school. Nice to learn something anyway 🙂

  10. admin says:

    Ian, speaking of BB (and the dubious use of ‘excrementitious’)…

  11. Ian Luck says:

    I only used ‘Excrementitious’ because (a) I’m not a Big Brother contestant, and (b) I wanted to use the word ‘Shit’ in my reply, and thought that if I were to use the word ‘Shitty’, it would be a bit much. It’s all gone a bit faecal again, hasn’t it?

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Snowy – life interrupted me but here, from yesterday’s “The Dancing Floor” p.61 (Penguin Edition) Sir Edward Leithen is watching after dinner dancing at a friend’s house in 1920:
    These people were dancing as savages danced – to get rid of or to engender excitement. Apollo had been ousted by Dionysos. The n* in the band who came forward now and then and sang some gibberish was the true master of ceremonies.
    There is no other way to describe that passage but as racist and you can’t reduce it by saying it was the usage of the time. It’s possible Buchan just doesn’t like jazz and it would sound shocking to a Victorian, but all the comments from “good” people at the time are racist.
    A few pages on Mollie is explaining Core Arabin’s upbringing: “She was in London last summer with the Ertzbergers [of whom Sir Edward thinks highly] and I was rather unhappy about her living among cosmopolitan Jew ‘rastaquoueres’ so I am trying to do what I can for her this winter.” The word is a rather nasty way of describing we might call nouveau riche so the two words are strange together. The word is used later on again in the same context.
    This is an important issue because how much should you get away with by putting your nastier thoughts in the mouths of your villains? See, it’s not my voice, it’s the baddies. And in this case it isn’t even the baddies.
    I enjoy the plots, even The Dancing Floor which is rather weird – the peasants storming Dr. Frankenstein’s castle with torches and pitchforks, although the Dr. F in this case had certainly earned it.
    Yes, Lord Tweedsmuir, as himself, expressed all sorts of good things, was greatly admired by the Canadians and was deeply mourned when he died in 1940 of ulcer complications, but you do have to read him, especially today, with a mental eraser. I’m even allowing him a rather paternalistic attitude toward young women because that really was what he’d been raised with and besides it gives young men such good excuses to be heroes.

  13. snowy says:

    Hello H, this is a ticklish subject. But I think you have your head well screwed on and are not going to be offended by a grown up discussion.

    Perhaps the first thing we need to consider and this is often overlooked that the text was written nearly a 100 years ago. Language and attitudes shift constantly, they have to be weighed very carefully to determine what they were – intended – to mean.

    Words are particularly slippery, they can acquire new meanings and drop old ones in the space of a very few years. I’m sure you can think of at least half a dozen terms that were used by your parents, that were entirely innocent of any pejorative/demeaning/degrading meaning, but are now completely taboo.

    In the 2 sections of text you have used as examples there are 3 words that would be thought problematic in the 21st century.

    The first comes as a description of how people danced, like ‘savages’. The word is not anchored to any group or time period, it simply describes a state of being, that of acting completely without restraint. It does not ascribe that ‘savagery’ to any group or people.

    I’ll confess I’m struggling to find the exact counter example I need… OK. If the author had chosen to use instead “They danced like Dervishes”, [it would have been common currency in the period], even that though that names a specific group it is just comparative. Dervish dancing had been imported as a form of popular spectacle admired for the skill of the performers.

    In my mind, [strange place, but I’m stuck with it], it would only become problematic if it was used in conjunction with another identifying marker, to imply they were somehow lesser. eg. “They danced like Tomanian* savages”.

    We will come to the most problematic word in a moment, I just want to deal with the usage of ‘Jew’ first.

    The female protagonist, a free spirited young woman, referred to as Corrie is earlier described by Sir Edward as “dancing with a handsome young Scot”. If we break this example down, two at least in the context, positive attributes applied to a member of a whose kin-group identified by the word Scot.

    Then comes the passage you highlighted containing the line: “She was in London last summer with the Ertzbergers, and I was rather unhappy about her living among cosmopolitan Jew rastaquouères, so I am trying to do what I can for her this winter.”

    This comes from a different character ‘Mollie Nantley’, who is described in the same conversation by Sir Edward:

    “Mollie’s comely face, with her glorious golden-red hair slightly greying at the temples, had a look of compassionate motherliness. With all her vagueness, she is one of the shrewdest women of my acquaintance, and I have a deep respect for her judgment.”

    This character, older generation, maternal concern for a parentless child, who is worried that Corrie is behaving in a reckless manner and may come to some imagined harm.

    Let’s edit one word out of that sentence and change another:

    “She was in London last summer with the Churchills, and I was rather unhappy about her living among cosmopolitan rastaquouères, so I am trying to do what I can for her this winter.”

    That seems to have taken most of the sting out of it! Cosmopolitain, if we accept the interpretation that it means well travelled is positive. Rastaquouères, not a phrase in common use, snobbish certainly. Any hint of concern about the birthplace of those described has to be weighed in the context of the generation of the speaker, the overwhelming ‘motherly’ concern for a ‘child’ and the background of the huge insularity of most peoples experience. [The latter was to an extent we cannot even imagine now, before any form of mass information, no Internet, no TV, no Radio. Cinema was in its infancy and regarded as a form of low entertainment not patronised by the upper classes. Foreigners were very uncommon and most people only ever learned of them through crude stereotypes put about in sensational fiction.]

    It only seems to become problematic to some people, in my mind [you’ve been warned already] when coupled with the kin-group to become ‘Jew rastaquouères’.

    Substitute kin-group to produce ‘American rastaquouères’ nobody would bat an eyelid.

    If we agree the use of words has to be judged in the context it which they were written, then happily the same page provides the example we need. Remember Corrie was dancing with a ‘handsome young Scot’?

    I lied about that! The exact line is this: “It was a tall girl, who was dancing with a handsome young Jew, and dancing, as I thought, with a notable grace.”

    The kin-group is just a designation of kinship and carries with it no intrinsic baggage.

    Buckle up! we are goin’ for the big one!

    Gentle reader, I implore you that will forgive a less than cogent explanation, and that before you start mentally fitting me up with a white pointy hat and “one burning cross, to-go!” [If I am doomed to dig myself into a hugely embarassing hole that was possibly the first spadefull!!], stay with me to the very end and judge me only then.

    To recap, the text runs:

    “These people were dancing as savages danced – to get rid of or to engender excitement. Apollo had been ousted by Dionysos. The n* in the band who came forward now and then and sang some gibberish was the true master of ceremonies.”

    The character that says these words is appalled by new fashion in modern music, [the text identifies it as ragtime].

    We need to examine how he has been drawn in the text. He was plucked from a very genteel Edwardian world of sedate formal dances. Thrown into 4 years of bloody war, constantly shelled, possibly mentally damaged by the experience, perhaps half deafened, disturbed by sudden noise, desperate for the peace and quiet of his former life, it is probably understandable that he finds it unfathomable.

    That dealt with, *deep breath*, we get to the real charge. The use of a certain word.

    The first step on every journey if often the most difficult and this is a big one, I must ask you to forget everything you now know about that word. Everything, we need to start from a completely blank slate. Absolutely blank.

    Are you ready? Really ready?

    Here it comes!

    It was not of itself at the time the story was written a bad word in British English.

    In British English it was a designator of kin-group, [massively inaccurate it may have been, lumping together millions of people, who had distinct and different cultures. But that single fault can also be laid at the feet of most of the words that have replaced it over time, ie. ‘Black’].

    Britains would not really learn of the truly horrible history attached to those six letters until US troops arrived 20 years later.

    Lets take the techniques we have previously used and apply them here:


    “The vocalist in the band who came forward now and then and sang some gibberish was the true master of ceremonies.”

    Exchanging kin-group with function reveals the sense of the sentence.

    Which can be rendered as “the true Master of Ceremonies”, [ie. the most impressive, talented, skillful], was the vocalist.

    The sentence is intend to signal positive approval of the vocalist.

    Changing one description for another does not change the sense of the sentence unless it carries with it additional meaning. And as it was used at the time of writing in British English it did not have any additional meaning of itself.

    To put that historical period in context, African-American artists were coming to Britain at this time to escape discrimination, Paul Robeson was carried shoulder high when he visited Wales to support the miners. The difficulties he faced were not to do with his ‘race’ but his politics! [Not an exact example, but the most well known.]

    British people, the majority, have never much cared about skin colour. You can always find the odd idiots that do, but the majority don’t.

    That the British were rabidly racist in this period is a complete myth, that myth exists because of conflation of two entirely different factors. British people regarded all foreigners with suspiscion, if you live on an isolated island this is normal. [British people were suspiscious of people from the village 3 miles down the road!]

    A compounding factor, is Britain had over 200 years picked fights with everybody on the planet and each time the enemy would be absolutely demonised. To the point that eventually …everybody… who was not British was regarded as suspect.

    Britain was certainly xenophobic, but it wasn’t racist.

    There is an example which I can only reconstruct from memory, because searching fails to find it easily.

    During the Second World war there was a huge airfield building program for obvious reasons. It followed a standard pattern, civilian contractors would pour the concrete for the runways, [this way usual done with a workforce whose home country was officially neutral. Blind eyes were turned to this.]

    The next stage would begin when the American Airforce Construction Battalion turned up to fit out the station, equipment, housing etc. These troops were warmly welcomed by the locals, drinks were bought for them in the village pub, they were invited to tea by local families on Sunday afternoon, [even if having guests over would leave the whole family a bit short of food during the week because of rationing.]

    This peaceful rustic scene carried on for months, some local girls allowed themselves to be wooed by some of the US troops, nobody thought much of it. Young people are young people even during wartime. Friendships were formed between the locals and the vistors, they compared stories of farming in the US with farming in Britain. These troops were African-American and it was from them the locals got their first idea of what life was really like in the Southern States of America. And they were appalled, they had no idea of the reality.

    But this was not to last, there was a cloud on the horizon. This dark cloud was the imminent arrival of White troops.

    The locals were initially baffled, Americans were Americans to them, it was only when they learned that their friends would be forced out of the barracks they had built and back into tents, be confined to base and have to modify their behaviour were they shocked.

    The British have many flaws, but they really hate injustice. They stand up for their friends and support the underdog in any fight.

    This came to a head when the new American base commander sent instructions that from now on the local pub, the only pub for miles, would be segregated by race. Having been forewarned by his friends, the landlord complied with the request, as one would expect… by erecting large signs that read “Coloureds^ Only”, thus the locals stood up for their friends and raised two fingers to what they saw as a bully.

    So to return to my thesis, the key problem with interpreting the intention of an author in a text almost a century old. Is to be able to separate out what appears on the page; from our own modern interpretation of what those words now mean in the 21st century.

    This has become enormously difficult since today xenophobia has become completely confused with racism, they are not the same thing.

    [But that is a debate for another day! My fingers are tired.]

    [ * This sentence is a trap, the reader of it might have a fully formed picture in their mind of how the people of Tomania danced. Tomania doesn’t exist, it was created for ‘The Great Dictator’ as a parody of a European country.

    Any reader whose image of Tomonian dance contains even a whiff of a grass skirt, is projecting the contents of their own mind into the text. Something the author has no control over, nor is responsible for.]

    [ ^These were different times, that word was then still acceptable.]

  14. snowy says:

    Makes note that underline tags don’t work! Bah!

    Excuse any spelling errors/typos.

    Any who disagrees with me, disagrees, it is only an opinion, I really don’t mind.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    I appreciate your analysis, Snowy, and I can at least partially agree with you, but I have come across too many references to “jungle drums” and such like from this period (Dorothy Sayers has Lord Peter make such remarks and I can’t research the source just now) where older people fear that their children are being drawn into uncontrolled wildness to consider the word neutral and in the cited sentence the word ‘gibberish’ should surely indicate that master of ceremonies was meant to indicate control of events.
    Comparing the two styles of dance was certainly deliberate as an indication of the risk Core (that was her name and pronounced like Greek Irene) was taking in not apparently controlling her public behaviour. It was a nice parallel for the reasons you gave – before vs after the war so it was too bad he went so far out in his portrayal.
    When it comes to xenophobia vs racism I don’t think the recipients care which word it is. I think of the Windrush and the Komagata Maru and the feeling that ‘others’ are only British when in their homelands, not when they dare to imply they have rights in Britain or in ‘white’ British colonies. We are still living down the second of those two ships.
    I would also remind you that those terrible southern USians were of British stock. That is as heated as I will allow myself to get because I acknowledge the truth of “that was then and this is now and we think differently now.”

  16. snowy says:

    Helen, you should receive a blooming medal* for wading through all that! If I was wearing a hat I would doff it.

    I’m NOT going to do another long screed of text, [at least I’m going to try not, but you know me!]

    ‘Jungle Drums’ without the exact context I can’t judge, I suspect not all uses are problematic. [Europeans completely failed to understand the real function of the drums, and this was a mistake that would cost them very, very dearly.]

    Xen vs R, I take your point, but the key difference is that Xen. fades quickly on contact. [Not the best explanation, but trying to be short, short!]

    I’d not heard of the ‘Maru, a quick poke about reveals that it is a complicted story, the key thing to untangle is the threat from the Ghadarists. [Needs more research, would need to look at official docs.]

    I’m not quite sure about the link ‘tween Britain and the behaviour of the citizens of an independant country. [British control was lost in 1776 and Americans have to shoulder the burden of what happened next on their own. And blimey, anybody need a lesson on the evils of completely unrestrained Capitalism, pick up a book on post-colonial American expansion.]

    [ * I would write to Justin T, but I think he has… er… quite a lot er… going on already.]

  17. snowy says:


    Talk about missing the bleeding obvious!

    If America had remained British it would have been…. Canada!

  18. Ian Luck says:

    The last copy of ‘1984’ I owned, in 2012, was given to a Russian truck driver who saw the book on my desk (I’d just finished it), and asked if he might borrow it to read – he spoke very good English, having lived here for a few years. I gave it to him, and he said that he’d always wanted to read it, but, unsurprisingly, it was very hard to find in Russia. I hope he enjoyed it.

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