Book cover designs are more than just protective, decorative, and promotional. Some are logos as memorably charged as Coke or IBM. Take the paperback cover for The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, who died last Thursday at 91 (unless, of course, it’s yet another ploy to retain his privacy). The simple yellow type against blood-red field says absolutely nothing — yet evokes everything — about the book.
For all of us in high school (for me in the 60s) who were assigned The Catcher to read, discuss, and report on, the cover protected us from the controversy that surrounded the book regarding teenage rebellion and adolescent promiscuity. At the time, at least one teacher was suspended for assigning it and many libraries censored it. Yet its staid typography signaled “classic” or “literary,” while the color red suggested “hot.” The book was indeed a classic literary hot potato and its economical cover design covered it over.
The original jacket, illustrated by E. Michael Mitchel in 1951 (below), captured the last scene in the book, but was nonetheless ambiguous at first glance. The original mass-market paperback, with the faux Reginald Marsh pulp painting of Holden Caufield, was more evocative but also mysterious. The Penguin edition (bottom) was the most uninviting. There were others, too.
Design teachers routinely give The Catcher cover as a redesign problem, and it’s always interesting to see how young students interpret this venerable book of teenage angst. Times and images have changed since 1951. For me, however, reflecting on Mr. Salinger’s passing, The Catcher in the Rye will always be that unadorned maroon cover with yellow type.