The Help Desk: Judge a cover by its book

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

Book cover design has gotten very good, by which I mean if you walk into a bookstore and check out the new release wall, none of the books are so ugly that they're offensive. That's good!

But just as there are no truly ugly book covers anymore, I think there are no truly great book covers anymore, either. I'm thinking of the good old fashioned Salinger white covers with the rainbows, or the Great Gatsby cover with the eyes, or the uber-90s-goth Bell Jar cover with the dead rose.

Book covers now are very safe. They're all abstract colorful landscapes, or glimpses of body parts — jaws, feet, necks — that don't impinge upon the reader's imagination of what the characters in the book should look like. Whatever happened to illustrating scenes from the book? Why wouldn't you try to make a book cover that interacts with the book, rather than one that just sits there and looks pretty?

But I don't want to be nostalgic for a past that doesn't exist. Are there any good book covers anymore, Cienna? Or will you make my week by telling me that I'm right?

Eva, Lynnwood

Dear Eva,

There seems to be a disconnect between the book covers you cite – rainbows, eyes, and dead roses – and what you expect a book cover to do. How are those not abstract conceptualizations of books?

Don't be embarrassed. We're all wrong sometimes. Just last night I had someone – a man – mansplain at me that an alligator cannot be my progeny. He did not back down, even after I showed him photos of Beatrix crowning from my vagina. (Obviously, it was a symbolic act. Obviously, she hatched from an egg first and then only executed a quick dip inside me, like a freaky polar bear plunge, as my pediatrician warned me that the natural biome of my uterus is "hostile to life.")

It is absolutely criminal the way some people regard adoption as inferior to biological procreation.

But back to your question. Personally, I enjoy medical dictionaries that graphically depict things like a person's face sans skin. Also, cookbooks with tacos on the cover. I rarely cook but I do enjoy fondling a beautifully illustrated cookbook; the images go great with a bottle of wine.

I can appreciate you romanticizing the book covers of yon – I think we often fawn over reminders of the past. But remember: the past is history. That alligator will never again fit inside that vagina, no matter how many industrial spacers we may buy.