Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Most judgment is prejudgment. “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” says the proverb, but we do. Elements that enter our experience are dismissed or considered for further study based on the sparsest of data. Given the fullness of experience and the proliferation of things that affect it, it is necessary to do so.

The mechanism of such decisionmaking is rarely discussed. But for the week ending March 16, 1997, we can strip our adage of metaphor and assess the contents of the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list without cracking a book, basing our findings solely on the information, graphic and written, transmitted by dust jackets.

Presumably this gives a book’s visual presentation greater emphasis than it customarily receives, so to ensure an appropriate setting for our study of tomorrow’s doorstops and tire chocks (I have actually used an unread copy of James Michener’s Space for the latter purpose), we head for the most impressive display of NYT Best Sellers in town: the Dupont Circle Super Crown.

1 & 2The Partner by John Grisham—It is a paradox of contemporary discount bookselling that the conferring of value upon items to be sold at cut rates is of the utmost import. Hence the two spaces at the head of the list devoted to the latest work by that law novelist I haven’t read (whose works I have only recently learned to distinguish from those of that other law novelist I haven’t read).

Besides reinforcing the absence from the display of Scott Turow, the twin columns of The Partner may also be read as signifying the Manichaean oppositions of right and wrong, lawful and unlawful, guilty and innocent, upon which the legal thriller hinges; the stacks’ indistinguishability may denote the uncertainty surrounding the eventual administration of justice that is also a genre staple. Alternatively, the doubled availability of the book in the display may serve to emphasize its desirability to consumers motivated by the approval of their book-buying peers—an audience virtually guaranteed by Crown’s overall display concept.

3Sole Survivor by Dean Koontz—Like that of his quantitative better, Koontz’s book jacket boasts embossed type to promote tactile interest. Unlike Grisham’s, which employs a serif typeface in the interest of conveying the traditional authority of the law, Koontz’s cultivates a modernist look via oversize sans-serif type.

The gravitas of the Grisham design, when taken in concert with the relatively few works in that author’s oeuvre, encourages the proud display of all Grisham titles, as a unit, on the purchaser’s bookshelf. The prolificacy of Koontz, conversely, would lead such a grouping to imply the vastness of the time the owner has spent in pursuit of mediocre pleasures. For this reason, perhaps, the Koontz jacket type is underlaid with a hypnotic sequence of brightly colored concentric rings, the better to lure the impulse purchaser. Note also that this design will appear much shabbier than the Grisham should it linger on a night stand long enough to gather dust. The tag sale-ready graphic layout will prompt the buyer to dispose of the book quickly, freeing up valuable bedside space for subsequent Koontz opera.

4Hornet’s Nest by Patricia Cornwell—Although biographical data implies that Koontz’s sexual orientation is that of the majority, his back-cover photo, which shows him sporting a mustache of the type I like to imagine adorns the undepicted physiognomy of the foreground participant in Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1978 Helmut and Brooks, N.Y.C., points to a desire to unsettle the reader with the frisson of the forbidden. Cornwell’s photo, on the other hand, looks positively lacrosse mom-ish, with only a two-tone belt buckle with a stairstepped Southwestern motif offering any hint of Sapphic desire.

This contrast in auctorial visual presentation reveals Koontz’s project to nurse transgressive impulses, and Cornwell’s to harbor assimilationist intentions. This quality of Cornwell’s is further illuminated by the substitution of an embossed hornet for the apostrophe in the novel’s title—a rather nancy design fillip that flies in the face, as it were, of the purported “ruggedness” of popularly construed lesbianism. (Although we have abjured judgment based on the text of these books, it must be noted that the hornet device is used as a section-break marker throughout Cornwell’s work.)

5Total Control by David Baldacci—Baldacci’s book marks the solitary appearance on our list of a once-respectable illustrational device that has acquired a rather down-market stigma: the incongruously bloodied implement. Once widely associated with best-selling mystery novels (particularly British), it now decorates almost exclusively those also-ran whodunits that boggle the mind only with the rapidity of their arrival on the remainder racks. In the work at hand the implement is a green fountain pen, reddened at its tip. Perhaps embarrassed by this déclassé design, or caught up short by the novel’s success, Crown employees have chosen to obscure the nib with a price sticker.

Like Grisham, Baldacci is a former attorney, but as a relative newcomer to the NYT list—having also penned the best-selling Absolute Power (“absolutely one of the most phenomenal books of its time”)—Baldacci’s publisher does not trust him to return unassisted: His entry marks the first instance of back-cover blurbs in our study. These small advertisements include the following notice from People: “Baldacci cuts everyone’s grass—Grisham’s, Ludlum’s, even Patricia Cornwell’s—and more than gets away with it.”

That a reviewer and then a publicist would construe as hostile a simple act of gardening may ultimately work against sales, for it suggests that the book contains little that would commonly be considered thrilling. Furthermore, politically astute cultural analysts will focus on the dismaying implication that one must meet rigorous class requirements—must in fact be a professional peer—before one may expect any offer of horticultural assistance from David Baldacci.

6The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks—It is only at this point that embossed type fails to appear on the dust jacket under consideration. This turns out to be fully consonant with The Notebook’s presentation. Though not as casual as the title might imply, the book’s design does aim at a certain social egalitarianism.

Having ostensibly written a Bridges of Madison County without adultery but with a broken engagement and regular marital intercourse, Sparks aims to solace the reader with his tale of the self-proclaimed “nothing special” Noah Calhoun, as the sleeve puts it, “content to live with only memories…[reverie-friendly ellipsis in the original] until she unexpectedly returns to his town to see him once again.”

Since the jacket also tells us that The Notebook was inspired by Sparks’ grandparents-in-law, it seems safe to assume an outcome as welcoming as the farmhouse-porch vista that graces the front cover. Intimacy of a not entirely forbidden sort is implied both by the volume’s substandard dimensions—8.63 by 5.52 by .79 inches (source: www.amazon.com)—and by the background treatment above the photo: pale purple handscript on a pale yellow background, a color pairing reminiscent of a Laura Ashley tea cozy.

7Evening Class by Maeve Binchy—Sparks’ BoMC-style soulmating gives way, in Binchy’s publicists’ hands, to the full-blown Wallerian renewal of an Irish headmaster: “At forty-eight, emotionally distanced from his wife and baffled by his two grown daughters, Aidan Dunne might have given up entirely if it hadn’t been for the evening class. His class. A class called Introduction to Italian.”

Muzzy domesticity is conveyed via a “rest-home impressionist” jacket illustration by William Ireland, which depicts a scene (roll-top desk, vaguely 19th-century chair, bookcases filled with knickknacks and decoratively spined books) that will instantly be familiar to browsers of the Levenger catalog (“Tools for Serious Readers”). Such “serious readers” are of course separated solely by income and class insecurity from those devourers of non-best-selling romance novels who check “avid reading” as among their hobbies on appliance-registration cards.

8Small Town Girl by LaVyrle Spencer—True love is reserved by authors in the best-seller list’s romance ghetto only for the unuppity. Which means that “one of country music’s brightest lights,” who “at thirty-five…has no time for marriage, children, or kinfolk,” is gonna have to dirty her cowboy boots a little before she’s fit for the guy next door.

Spencer, having learned from her heroine, is careful not to get above her station. Her first name shrieks possibility, reminding readers that writerly riches aren’t restricted to the well-born, and her photo removes all doubt: It shows Spencer to have bad taste in nail polish, an affinity for garden-variety froufrou teacups, and a grin that makes her resemble one of those lap dogs that look as if they’ve had their faces leveled with a whack of a board. Very reassuring.

9Airframe by Michael Crichton—Bearing the most established name on the list, Crichton’s books no longer have to convince prospective purchasers. Thus, Airframe’s jacket serves merely to attract the eye long enough for it to register with the consumer that Crichton has done it again.

Consequently, the design uses the title as a sign—not of the semiotic sort, but the neon. Legibility is subservient to flashiness: “Airframe” glows bright orange, vibrating op-art-style from within an embossed silver grid of bowed lines and receding diagonals.

It is no accident that this grid is suggestive of both geographic meridians and aircraft armature, for it is to an audience consisting mainly of regular air travelers that Crichton provides escape and reassurance of a wholly distinct variety from that offered by the trio of domestic pastoralists that precedes him. Frequent flyers require delivery not from comfortable, unromantic mundanity but from actual, stifling claustrophobia. They want to be told not that the emotionally extraordinary can pop up anywhere, but that it won’t, not today. But they still need distraction. Turbulence is OK. Impact is not.

So understanding is Knopf of this predicament that the jacket’s too-revealing plot synopsis actually tells readers that the odds are in their favor that everything will turn out all right: “Three passengers are dead. Fifty-six are injured. The interior cabin virtually destroyed. But the pilot manages to land the plane…[relief-friendly ellipsis in the original]”

10The List by Steve Martini—High concept receives its highest expression in this best-seller about writing a best-seller, this list-maker about making “the List.” Of course, that alone is only semi-impressive. It is the photographic illustration of the author that establishes this book’s conceptual dominance. Even without knowing what the book is about, the viewer (“potential reader” seems rash) may sense what’s up: Although Martini is dressed comfortably, in a denim jacket with its cuffs turned back over a dark blue shirt, and although he is tanned, implying an outdoorsiness in keeping with his residence on the “West Coast,” he is somehow a less than convincing presence. There’s an uncertainty to his gaze that results in epistemological flux: How do we know this is Steve Martini?

The plot synopsis confirms our suspicions: Although “Gable Cooper has penned a novel to kill for,” the book was actually written by “Abby Chandlis,” who has hired a man named “Jack Jermaine” to portray Cooper to the public. But as the shot of “Steve Martini” reminds us, none of these names is plausible. Individual authorial identity dissolves faster than hypertext, while nonspecific authorial authority is maintained. And is this not true not only of “the List,” but also of The List—and the list?

Attentive (and persistent) readers will note that since the NYT lists 15 fiction best-sellers per week and Crown has redoubled its efforts to move Grisham’s contribution out the door, six books remain undiscussed. But I believe the principles used in the present analyses would illuminate this phantom half-dozen in similar fashion. Also, our research assistant is getting testy: “I don’t like this bookstore,” she says. “They don’t have The Borrowers, but they have three books by the Duchess of York.”CP