We’d open this post with the obligatory joke about judging books by their covers—but we all do judge books by their covers. For better or worse, it’s our first impression of the author’s work—and a great cover will make us pick up a book as fast as a poor one will make us put it aside.
That pressure to stand out inspires a lot of creativity among publishers, and every year, some truly amazing covers are designed. Yet only a few truly penetrate into pop culture to become iconic—perpetually recognizable, often imitated. Here are 10 of the best book covers of all time.
Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney
Whether you’re interested in a thousand-year old poem written in Old English or Seamus Heaney’s crisp, brilliant translation of what may be the oldest poem in something considered English, chances are you at least stopped to pick up this book when you saw the cover. The intensity of the image conveys horror, violence, and strangeness effortlessly, with the end result being that somewhat more people are familiar with this strange epic poem than before this cover hit the shelves.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
May this cover never to retired. Created by Spanish artist Francis Cugat for the book’s initial printing, it pretty much is the book now, visually-speaking. Its success stems from its haunting, haunted nature, its surrealism, and the way it captures the mood of the book: the sad, weary eyes floating insubstantially over what could be an overheated, decadent party.
The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
Simple and stark, this cover, created by S. Neil Fujita, conveys the rotten power Puzo examines, even as it intrigues the potential reader. It could just as easily be the cover to a horror novel—which isn’t actually that far off the mark, if you think about it. There aren’t too many book covers that create what’s essentially a brand logo, but that’s just what this one did.
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
Not so much the cover of the edition featured here, which is quite nice, but this one, designed by David Pelham in 1972 to coincide with the film release. Supposedly banged out in a single evening, its use of bright, primary colors was startling at the time, hinting at the hallucinogenic nightmare within, and the use of a cog for an eye punned on the title, referenced the iconic film, and conveyed the sense of society being broken all at once. It’s brilliant on a level no other cover has quite been able to surpass.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Brilliant covers don’t have to be old; the cover to Thomas’ recent breakout novel, designed by artist Debra Cartwright, uses negative space in a bold, powerful way. Lead character Starr is depicted faithfully based on her description from the book—simultaneously fierce and terrified —and yet she is obscured by her message, which is somehow perfect. Like the subject matter of the story, this cover demands you look.
Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes
Speaking of negative space, is there a more brilliant use of it in publishing history? We submit that there is not.
A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey
We’re not here to rehabilitate Frey or his memoir-that-was-really-fiction. We’re here to praise the cover, and designer Rodrigo Corral. Whatever your opinion of the dark tale of addiction and the poor decisions behind it, the cover conveys chaos, confusion, helplessness—all the things that Frey either did or didn’t deal with in the course of his life. Its use of color is brilliant, and the wrongness of a hand covered in rainbow sprinkles clues you in to the nature of the story.
The Stranger, by Albert Camus
If your head spins a little when looking at Helen Yentus’ cover for Camus’ most famous book, you’re in the right headspace to start reading this disturbing, challenging story. The stark lines converging on the diffuse, cloud-like title creates a head-ache inducing optical illusion. Once you see it, you’ll never forget it; once you read the book, you’ll forever associate it nwith this powerful cover.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Nothing against Elizabeth Moss, but the classic cover from the 1985 American paperback, which is still used for many versions of Margaret Atwood’s dark future vision, is the definition of iconic. The overwhelming wall, the apparently hopeless and random motion of the handmaids, and their iconic red costumes—these elements combine into one of the most evocative book covers ever.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World has had a lot of covers in its time. A lot. But this one, designed by Gregg Kulick for the modern classics series, is stunning. Similar in some ways to the Camus cover above, it combines the absurd and frightening tone of the story with a simple, bold approach that draws the eye and holds it tortuously. You try to figure out what you’re looking at, even as the sneaking suspicion that you don’t want to know creeps up on you.
What’s your pick for the best cover ever?