The Great Gatsby: What a Great Book(Cover)

I can’t get into the habit of reading e-books. In fact, I can only read so much from a computer screen before I’m searching for the nearest print button. The idea of carrying books on an electronic device that weighs no more than two pounds and takes up less space than the latest edition of Essence magazine sounds convenient and efficient. However, for some reason, I just can’t get with it. (And believe me, I’ve tried.) I simply need a book. What can I say? I like paper. I like to write in margins and turn pages. I even like the feel of books—so much so that I recently purchased a second copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man just because the book felt good. (I was intrigued by the soft binding and rim, and I got a kick out of how the pages flipped through my fingers.)

I also like to study book covers. Now, I understand that some e-books contain digital images; however, many do not. For me, a book’s cover is more than a picture. Book covers represent the intersections between reality and perception, as well as readers’ interpretations and writers’ intentions. They convey narratives about the climate in which a text or edition was published. Lastly, book covers reflect artists’ interpretations of a narrative, and they grant insight into the themes and characters that emerge in a text.

Since 1925, many illustrations have graced the cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In an online exhibit sponsored by the Rare Books and Special Collections division at the University of South Carolina, the curator exhibited 18 images affiliated with the text. Although the curator identified the time period and literary context in which the covers were produced, the actual illustrations were the most compelling part of the site. Of the 18 covers, most of them included images that reflected themes addressed in the text— including displays of wealth, fashion, and romance at the turn of the 20th century. Editions published by the Armed Services  and for scholarly reasons did not include images or illustrations.

Interestingly, all of the covers created for The Great Gatsby neglect to capture the essence of the text, which embraces the dichotomy and the co-dependent relationship between the wealthy and the poor. Instead, the illustrated covers reflect the vibrancy of New York City, overindulgence, wealth, and to borrow a phrase from Thorstein Veblen, the habits of the “leisure class.” [1] While The Great Gatsby is very much about the lavish lifestyles of the wealthy, it is also about the harsh realities of the working classes, and the boundaries and intersections of these groups. The variance in illustrations and the decision to include images on the novel’s cover forced me to think about two items: (1) intended audience, and (2) the lens from which particular editions were intended to be read.

Upon reviewing The Great Gatsby and the book covers affiliated with the novel, I asked myself: “If I were to develop a cover for The Great Gatsby, or any text, how would it look? Which themes would I depict?” I found the University of South Carolina’s online exhibition fascinating because it forced me to think about the ways museums and cultural institutions can encourage critical thinking skills beyond the objects housed in their buildings. Perhaps incorporating everyday objects, such as books, into exhibits (or discussions about exhibits) can encourage people to think critically about the images they encounter in their daily lives, as well as the ways the themes addressed in books manifest in reality.

Book covers are not just pretty pictures. Rather, they speak volumes about texts, authors, artists, intended audiences, and the social, political, and economic climate at the time of publication.

[1] Thorstein Veblen, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” in The American Intellectual Tradition, eds. David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 132.

3 thoughts on “The Great Gatsby: What a Great Book(Cover)

  1. So we are SUPPOSED to judge a book by its cover now? Just kidding. I agree competely. The images we choose to represent ourselves, our works, our enemies all speak to who we are as a person and a society. I found it interesting that few of the books chose to depict Daisy and Gatsby together. Do we just have too much money on the brain?

  2. I read this one on my Kindle. Most books I find I have no problem with, but I actually struggled a bit with this one and ended up borrowing a print copy and finishing there. Plus, it was good to see what the cover actually looks like!

  3. I agree – the visual element is very important and definitely sets the mood for the reading. The e-books that I have read leave me feeling like I am missing an important aspect of the experience.

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