Good books in ugly covers.

I’ve just finished Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, about his early writing days in Paris.

ernest hemingway a moveable feast

Here’s a passage that made me happy. Hemingway has just been befriended by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who brings him a copy of his newly-published The Great Gatsby to read:

A day or two after the trip Scott brought his book over. It had a garish dust-jacket and I remember being embarrassed by the violence, bad taste and slippery look of it. It looked the book-jacket for a book of bad science fiction. Scott told me not to be put off by it, that it had to do with a billboard along a highway in Long Island that was important in the story. He said he had liked the jacket and now he didn’t like it. I took it off to read the book.

Of course, Hemingway loves the book and decides because of it to forgive Fitzgerald for being a huge pain in the ass.

I did some Googling and this must be the book cover Hemingway was referring to:

The Great Gatsby First Edition 1925

On the blog from which I borrowed this image, Sexuality in the Arts, the author describes the cover as “marvellous”. I tend toward Hemingway’s view, that it’s kind of atrocious.

One pictures Hemingway as one of those guys who doesn’t give a crap what anyone thinks of him. So it’s touching to hear him say he’s “embarrassed” by an ugly book cover. Possibly he means that he’s embarrassed on Fitzgerald’s behalf – embarrassed that Fitzgerald didn’t have the good sense to veto this ugly cover art – but that doesn’t explain why Hemingway removes the book-jacket before reading the book. I think he doesn’t want to be seen in the cafés reading a book that looks like “bad science fiction”. Hemingway is an artiste, after all. He’s got to keep up appearances.


Of all the books in my collection, the one I’d be most embarrassed to be seen reading in public is Kingsley Amis’ Collected Short Stories:

Kingsley Amis Collected Short Stories (Penguin 1983)

The illustrator’s name is Arthur Robbins. Robbins illustrated the covers for a number of Amis’ books when Penguin reprinted them in the early 1980s. They’re all more or less ugly:

Kingsley Amis Take A Girl Like You (Penguin 1984) Kingsley Amis What Became of Jane Austen? (Penguin 1981)

Unfortunately these ugly Penguins are the ones that turn up most frequently in secondhand book stores, at least the ones I visit. I’ve been trying to avoid them as I piece together my Kingsley Amis collection.


My friend Jenn hates what she calls the “short, fat” paperbacks. By which she means “mass market” paperbacks, thick and wrapped in shiny covers, the kind you find on racks near the checkout counter in Wal-Mart. I gather she finds the Wal-Martish associations embarrassing. I don’t share this particular embarrassment, but I can see where she’s coming from.

My friend Olin likes the smell of book glue, and he always subjects his books to a sniff test before purchasing. I don’t have an olfactory response to my literature – or if I do I’m not conscious of it – but again, I can see where Olin is coming from.

Some book collectors collect first editions. Others collect “sets”, preferring to display a uniform, monochrome shelf of hardcover Dickenses or Jane Austens. Me, I don’t like hardcover books; they can’t be comfortably held open to the light while lying on one’s side in bed, which is how I usually read.

There are a handful of authors that I like well enough to wish to own all their works: Philip Roth, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis. But I prefer to put together my collection from used paperbacks bought for a few bucks apiece. Greene and Waugh can both be acquired cheaply in handsome orange-bound Penguins. Roth’s novels from the ’50s through the ’70s are easily found used in Bantam paperbacks, while his more recent novels are published by Vintage in trade format.

Amis has given me more trouble. I believe all his books are available in Penguins, but unlike the Waughs and Greenes, the Penguin Amises aren’t handsome at all. Depending on when they were printed, many of these Penguins are too ugly to own.

Panther published a number of Amis’ novels in the ’70s, often with naked or half-naked girls on the covers. Although they look a little like stroke books, these are less embarrassing than the Penguins. Unfortunately they’re also harder to find:

Kingsley Amis I Like It Here (Panther 1975) Kingsley Amis I Want It Now (Panther 1969)

I own Amis’ most famous novel, Lucky Jim, in the baby-blue Penguin Classics edition:

Kingsley Amis Lucky Jim (Penguin 1992)

At least I’m not ashamed to be seen reading it. But I don’t like the baby-blue Penguin Classics. There’s something stuffy and uninviting about them. The covers murmur, “I’ve been accepted into the canon. I deal with serious themes and may be taught as part of a college curriculum.” This studious dressing looks particularly wrong on a light comic novel by Kingsley Amis. At least the naked girls on the cover of the Panthers seem to go with the contents of the books. Even the Arthur Robbins drawings on the ugly Penguins are a better fit.


As gaudy as the first edition of The Great Gatsby is, I would have no problem reading it in public. Why? Because everyone knows Gatsby is “literature”. Even people who’ve never read it. Even people who couldn’t tell you who wrote it. It doesn’t matter what they put on the cover. Anyone who sees you reading The Great Gatsby knows you’re a Reader of Serious Books.

It was different for Hemingway back in 1925. Fitzgerald was a new writer, not well-known outside of America. If Hemingway wanted to preserve his rep among the arty denizens of the Left Bank, they couldn’t get the idea that he read (ugh) science-fiction.

As for Kingsley Amis, the name might be vaguely familiar to literate people, but what are the odds that the waitress at the coffeeshop, or the cute girl sitting across from you on the train, will recognise I Want It Now, with its photo of a nude blonde girl sprawled across the cover, as a Serious Book? Sorry, buddy, but you’re going to have to find some other way to differentiate yourself from the ballcap-wearing herd with their iPods and Maxim magazines. Better pull out a Penguin Classic and save Kingsley Amis for when you’re at home alone.


Update, Nov. 19 2017: I was reminded of this old post while re-reading Nicholson Baker’s 1988 debut novel The Mezzanine. In an aside about how novelty coffee mugs have been supplanting dainty cup-and-saucer sets in people’s kitchen cupboards, Baker observes that

you develop a fondness for each mug as an individual, and you try to give even the ones you like least a chance to contain your coffee once in a while – you feel about ugly mugs that you have been given the way you do about bad book-cover designs on paperbacks whose insides you really like – you begin to cherish that slight grit of ugliness and wrongness.

I need to cultivate a Nicholson Bakeresque affection for my ugly paperbacks. The cover of my Vintage trade edition of The Mezzanine is neither ugly nor pretty enough to summon up any emotional response.

nicholson baker the mezzanine

Update, July 26, 2020: Redirected a dead link to, added cover images for A Moveable Feast and The Mezzanine, and linked to Bibliography page.

6 Responses to “Good books in ugly covers.”

  1. 1 kclaypole November 16, 2009 at 9:51 am

    great post…and oh, so true! I also own some good books in unfortunately, very ugly covers…always wonder who could possibly agree to print a perfectly hideous cover.
    Nice blog (just stumbled upon it)!

  2. 2 rboyle December 6, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    I actually really hate paper back books. I’m a bit of an aesthete and I really prefer the look of hardcover. That said, the hardcover has to be nice too. Just because it’s hardcover doesn’t mean I’ll love it.

    I’m very guilty of judging books by there covers, but in my defense, I’m really really rough on books so my need for hardcover isn’t just me being nit-picky. It’s not wanting my favorite book to get ripped in half while sitting in my bag.

    Also in my defense: Couldn’t it say something about the author, if they let a horribly horrible cover slide? Maybe? I mean, not being a published writer, I wouldn’t know, but…

  3. 3 Cindy February 15, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Being a graphic designer I am drawn to the cover art and do admit that is what pulls me toward a book.Then I read the back cover and the first couple of sentences..the “hook”. If I’m not intrigued by them it goes back.I read that the first sentence of a book is the most difficult to write and the most important.But the cover art is important also.A lot of books I wouldn’t have bought based on the cover unless I already knew and loved the author.As for hardcovers..they are a luxury for me.New ones.And I only buy my favorite authors in hardback because usually I can’t wait for the paperback version.They look better on a bookcase but are harder to read.I got an electronic reader as a present and have learned to love it.Down-loading books is convenient and the reader is lighter to hold.But something in me just loves the smell and feel of a book.

  4. 4 Moshe Feder April 26, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    This article in the NY Times about THE GREAT GATSBY:

    cites the same Hemingway quote that you liked. When I likewise singled it out on Facebook, a friend pointed out your blog post.

    I like what you’ve written about covers and their influence, even though I find the Gatsby cover more appealing than you do. (I completely agree about all the Amis covers.)

    However, when you write “It was different for Hemingway back in 1925. Fitzgerald was a new writer, not well-known outside of America. If Hemingway wanted to preserve his rep among the arty denizens of the Left Bank, they couldn’t get the idea that he read (ugh) science-fiction,” I think you’re mistaken.

    Hemingway is retrojecting the comparison to SF cover art. It wasn’t a genuine part of his memory of first seeing his friend’s book, it’s a comparison he thought of when writing his memoir. There were no SF hardcovers to speak of back when TGG came out. In fact, even the first SF pulp magazine, AMAZING STORIES, only began publication in 1926. So giving the arty denizens of the Left Bank the impression he read science fiction ( a term that hadn’t been coined yet!) would have taken some doing and certainly couldn’t have been accomplished with the jacket of TGG.

  5. 5 Michael A. Charles April 27, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    From a review of Alan Powers’ “Front Cover: Great Book Jacket And Cover Design”:

    “[R]ight up until the 1930s a speck of colour on the cover was enough to bring all Bloomsbury out in a rash. And pictures? Terribly common! Terribly American! Even the cheap end of the market, including early paperbacks, was dominated by sober affairs: title, publisher, author, a border or two for the flashy. When dust jackets appeared, mostly after the first world war, they were regarded as disposable items to protect the hardback underneath. ‘Keeping the jacket on a book,’ writes Powers, would have been ‘like storing clothes in the carrier bag from the shop where they had been bought.'”

    Moshe Feder comments that the term “science fiction” wasn’t in use when “The Great Gatsby” was first published. (The term was popularized by the publisher Hugo Gernsback in his magazine “Science Wonder Stories” in 1929, though there are isolated earlier occurrences.) So Hemingway couldn’t have thought, in 1925, that the cover reminded him of “a book of bad science fiction”.

    Still, there was genre fiction around, dime novels and the like, whose gaudy cover art Hemingway might have been reminded of when he saw the cover of “Gatsby”. Some of it, like the Tom Swift and John Carter series, both of which were published in hardcover, we would now characterize as “science fiction”. So I’m not sure Hemingway is “retrojecting” this comparison. He’s using terminology that wouldn’t then have been available to him, but that accurately reflects his remembered impressions from that time.

    Thanks, Moshe.


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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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