(This essay originally appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review's Spring 2013 issue.)
I take them all off, the covers. As soon as I’ve paid — swoosh! Gone! I don’t have the heart to throw them in the garbage, but I certainly don’t let them muddle my beautiful hardcover books.
Contemporary covers can be rancid things. Littered with sales copy and discount stickers. They crumple, they tear, they smudge, they catch when you dump them in your bag. Once you embrace the serenity of coverless books you can never go back. Without covers, hardcover books become confident blocks of wood — they don’t shimmy or slide in your hands or atop tables. Try it. You’ll love it. You’ll never go back.
So it’s a rare and wonderful thing to find a contemporary book wrapped in something I just can’t remove. Or, rather, wrapped in something I love to keep on, to remove and replace, again and again. This is the case with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, my favorite book from Haruki Murakami. Designed by Chip Kidd, the cover contains only the barest of text: title and author’s name. No blurbs or quotes or synopsis. The surface of the entire cover, front to back, is a full-bleed photograph of an orange wind-up bird toy against a baby-blue background gradient. Geoff Spear photographed the toy so that most of it looms just out of focus. Only the bird’s eye — smack in the middle of the front cover — is sharp.
Despite such minimalism, the cover is alive. The circular path of the text, the positioning of the eye, and the sweeping patterns in the bird’s design pull your attention first to the center, then along the edge to the spine, inviting you to flip the book over and try to parse just what it is you’re looking at.
Now tilt the book: A translucent pattern shimmers across the surface. Look closer still and you’ll notice that it is, in fact, a mechanical schematic of the bird. Curious. Unwrap the cover and beneath it — printed in white ink on royal-blue chipboard — is a blueprint drawn by Chris Ware revealing the hidden complexities behind wind-up-bird mechanics.
Had they stopped here, Kidd and Ware and Spear could have claimed abject book-cover domination. But Ware goes one subtle step further to render the mechanics of the eye as a water well — an outer rim and an inner rim, abstracting the pupil into a perfect circle. The figure–ground relationship in this well illustration can be read in both directions: Either you’re at the bottom looking up and someone’s head is peeking over the top, or you’re at the top looking down, a small figure huddled against the well wall. Both are poignant to the story.
What a joy this cover is — its layers and materiality and physicality, made for print and print alone. In my library, it’s one of the very few hardcover books that has survived my rule — take them all off! Well, all except this one. Take it off and then put it back on.