On top of the covers

Dear Charlie,

A Tale of Two Cities is the 29th volume of your complete works that I’ve picked up to date, and I’ve been staring at its lovely dark green, faux-leather-faux-gold-circa-1960s pomp and circumstance of a cover. Not that it’s weird in any way. It’s exactly the same binding as the other 35 volumes. This massive collection is unlike anything else on my bookshelves, and it got me thinking about the pros and cons of owning (and reading) such a uniform collection of books (it also got me thinking about historical fiction and revolutions and such, but we can chat about that later).


OK, this isn’t my library, but damn I wish it was. Let’s see you pull *that* off with Kindles and Kobos!

I confess that I do own an ereader, and what it does well it does really well. You can’t beat it for travelling, reading lengthy books without hand cramps or spine-breaking (grr, spine-breaking), looking up words on the fly, or hosting fragile books that you don’t want to bung into a bag with your lunch and keys. But for me it will never replace the look/smell/feel of real-live books. My bookshelves are a self portrait that I wouldn’t want to lose. I have to really loathe a book before I can part with it – even books that I didn’t particularly like and will likely never re-read I can still point to as a part of my literary development (I’m looking at you, American Psycho). My bookshelves make kaleidoscopic and colorful statements, and I really like that.

As well, for me, a book’s cover is an important mnemonic device, helping me to recall not only the book’s plot and characters, but where I was and what I was doing as I read it. And they’re sometimes lovely to look at in their own right. My dear Kobo just doesn’t do any of that as adroitly.


36 volumes of faux-leather goodness

Your works, Charlie, fall into a strange no-man’s land between these two extremes. The bubbly escapades of The Pickwick Papers and the emotional intensity of Dombey & Son are both presented to the reader in exactly the same way, and if you don’t know anything about the plots (as I didn’t), there’s no way to tell at the outset what you’re going to get.

I wonder, now, if the sheer uniformity caused much of the unfounded fear I had going in to several of these volumes that they would be dry, dull and hard to get through.

Of course, this black box approach might not have been such a bad thing. Doing a quick image search for covers of A Tale of Two Cities makes me realize that a silly or inappropriate cover can set up certain expectations of the contents that the story itself might have a hard time overcoming.

Most instances of A Tale of Two Cities feature appropriate imagery of burning buildings, French flags, guillotines and angry French mobs. Good stuff. Even if not particularly earth-shattering from a design perspective, at least I know what I’m getting into.


Yup. Pretty sure this book will be about the French Revolution.

But there are alarming exceptions.

For instance, I might be really disappointed that this edition of A Tale of Two Cities didn’t tell me which hotel was the best value or where to eat or the best time to ride the London Eye. The London Eye? Seriously?


Hey! Dickens contains NO hotel recommendations or Tube maps! Some tour guide you are…

And this one, although awesomely clever from a graphic design point of view, annoys the historian in me because neither Big Ben nor the Eiffel Tower existed during the French Revolution.


A Tale of Two Anachronistic Structures That Have Nothing to Do with the Plot

Aaaand then there’s this, which my brain can’t even come to grips with right now.


Yes, please tell me how to code-knit the names of Enemies of the People who should be beheaded at the first opportunity. Also a tea cosy.

You know, Charlie, maybe it’s best that I stick with my green and gilt volumes, and remain uninfluenced and always,

Affectionately yours,


2 comments on “On top of the covers

  1. Jennifer Vernon says:

    For your information, a Madame Defarge code exists: http://www.docstoc.com/docs/88695775/MADAME-DEFARGE-S-KNITTING-CIPHER

    Also, I am wondering why you left Gaspard’s child off your infographic of deaths in Dickens. Is it because Dickens didn’t specify the sex of the child?

    • melissa says:

      That’s so awesome! Maybe I should learn how to knit… 😉

      And my memory is getting hazy – did Gaspard’s child die during the events in the book? I only included characters who died as part of the action (ie, not in flashbacks or before the story began)…

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