Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Covers, Ayn Rand, and some ranting

Living in Paris, I sometimes miss good old English language bookstores. As much as I love the 4-story Gibert Jeune with its 3 euro copies of almost any literary classics, sometimes I yearn for those good old Penguin Classics. That's when I head into one of the few English language shops available: either the wonderful, always crowded, creaky and dusty Shakespeare and Company or its shiny, squeaky clean alternative, the foreign language section of Gibert Jeune. Of course, Paris being more in the vicinity of England than the United States, many of the English language titles tend to carry the British covers rather than the American ones. Which led me to stumble upon the following covers of Ayn Rand's novels:


This is not going to be a "cover comparison" post. It's more of a "cover complaining" post, that is, a response to seeing the above covers for the first time and finding them utterly ridiculous.

Let me start out by saying that I am actually rather fond of Ayn Rand's novels. Her philosophy has problems, yes, and one could argue about it until the cows come home, but I've always found her stories inspiring. Her characters are heroes, who have their own principles and act according to those principles. They are smart and courageous and self-sufficient, and those are things I will always admire. They represent the greatness of man, and that's always inspired me. That's perhaps why I'm so fond of the American covers - they show skyscrapers and trains and sunlight and they do give one the feeling that man can reach the heavens with his creations.

But the above covers...made me laugh. The Atlas Shrugged cover looks rather like John Galt is trying to be...Mr. Darcy? with a bit of Heathcliff? But in America? the Fountainhead one looks like it's trying to be The Great Gatsby (and yes, it's the correct time period). Now, if I were more of an art history expert I'd probably be able to say what artistic movement the covers are pretending to be a part of, but I can't. All I can say is that the covers are pretending to be something, something stylish and literary and artistic and utterly not fitting with the stories themselves. While Rand's stories do have their fair share of snobbishness, elitism and aristocracy, that was not the focus of Rand's stories. It was not the glittery gems and money, it was the personality and intelligence of the characters that earned those rewards that she focused on. Which is why portraying John Galt, a nameless factory worker with the world's greatest mind, as an aristocrat on the cover sort of fails. The woman on the cover of the Fountainhead is presumably Dominique, and she does indeed spend a lot of the book being all tall and skinny and blonde and exquisitely beautiful, just like in that cover illustration, but the Fountainhead is not her story but that of Howard Roark, and of the fountainhead of human creativity: the human mind.

And now I've just spent an inordinate amount of text over-analyzing book covers. At this point, is anyone going to judge Ayn Rand by a cover? She's a bit infamous, at least, in the United States, and those who pick up her books - mostly the young - will do so based on recommendations, the allure of the Ayn Rand Institute's essay prize, or because it made some list of literary classics. But this brings me to my next question: what is the attitude towards Rand in the UK? She's an American author, very concerned with American politics and the American system, and it's easy to see how some people might see her "current." That's not the case in the UK, obviously, and yet she's an English-language author, meaning that there's no barrier of translation. So are these covers the result of a need to market those stories to a UK public? Is their artsy, literary style a way to market these stories as literature, because to a non-American reading public, it's more difficult to market these stories as political and economic and philosophical texts?


  1. Personally, I love the Art Deco-ish covers ... but they certainly aren't right for those titles.

  2. ah, art deco, that's what it is. Thank you. I mean, I do like art deco as well, and it's certainly the right time period for Rand's stories, but it's just the way it's's not right for the stories.

    p.s. Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged? which do you prefer?

  3. Both covers above are by a famous French Art Deco artist called Tamara de Lempicka. Both existed before use as these book covers. The cover of the Fountainhead is actually the artist's self-portrait. Very interesting woman.

  4. Personally, I find the cover for the fountainhead to be exquisite. While you see Roark as the main focus of her novel, I personally see it more from the persecutive of Dominique so found this cover to be incredibly fitting. I'm still interested to learn that it is a portrait of the artist.