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  • Writer's pictureCraig Messenger

Judging Books by Their Covers | 001

I prefer to buy books used. Secondhand. I have a debilitatingly guilty conscience over all of the medieval things I’ve done to trees in my life. So I buy old books off ebay to baptize myself anew. And that’s not even the best part. There’s an advantage even more impressive than the marginal financial and environmental benefits of providing asylum to people’s detritus. The best part of buying these old prints is that you get to choose the best book cover.

You may think that you’ve got it all: impressive family, corner office, weekend car. Maybe you’re a boat guy. Boat gal. But when your friends come over for dinner and see generic book covers shielding your shelf of literature’s greatest achievements, they’re bound to wonder where you went wrong, what true identity you may be hiding. Don’t let the covers that Bezos and his minions picked betray the frayed threads of your societal identity. Take back your agency. And let me point you in the right direction.

Judging Books by Their Covers v.001

Burgess’ 1962 novel combines a thought provoking backbone with a contrasting blend of heinous acts and child-like personalities to drive the story. This novel is different from Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest, where I would have crawled into the pages to bro-hug McMurphy if I could have fit. No, in A Clockwork Orange, Our Humble Narrator and his droogs are far too instantly deplorable and unlikeable to ever incite any notion of cheers. Likeability isn’t even the proper scale to judge these characters on. The mechanical nature of their streak of actions, their inevitability, combined with the contorting journey through Alex’s stream of consciousness, makes the characters captivating on a plane totally removed from affability.

The other obvious stand-out from the 200ish pages is the beginnings of an entirely made up language that Burgess hatches inside the book. It’s a jargon that is so expertly-crafted and expertly-placed that I couldn’t help adopting some of his slang for a long while after I closed the final chapter. If you have a vocab test coming up, or just like looking at tables, here’s the Nadsat glossary, a mix of playful English exaggerations and Russian twists. It’s real horrorshow.

But on to the artwork.


We’ll start with perhaps the most popular book cover, a Penguin edition from 1972. Being the year after the movie came out, this cover is painted in Kubrick, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The bowler hat and gear-like eyeliner instantly betray the identity of this novel to the initiated, especially if they suffer yellow-orange (citrus!) color blindness. The paint by numbers theme and crayola color palette exude the youthful undertones that transform the violent aspects of the book into the ultra-disturbing. But this cover does leave out any hints of the book’s more sinister side, and while that could be the job of the front flap, the title of this article makes no mention of flaps. So we’ll have to penalize our Penguin friend accordingly. Overall, an aesthetically pleasing, if common, book cover.


Next up is this minimalist example. It's the modern default of today’s printing presses, and also the art that graces my Real Life copy of the novel. A footnote on the back panel and some WWW investigation show that it is the product of one Kelly Winton from just a few years ago.

The maximal mistake most minimalists make is not making their work minimal enough. They overcook it. Winton withheld plenty here. I don’t think I realized that the bottom right hand corner contains an eye until I typed this article.

The eye and pupil combination, captured in a Halloween hue against the binary world, stands as a well-placed recall to Alex’s rehabilitation exercises and the eponymous color of the novel’s meta-title.

This is a welcoming and intriguing cover. Yet, I am having trouble reconciling the nature of Alex’s reparation movies with the cold fact that this orange eye’s punishment is to be stuck staring at me, Real Life me, into perpetuity. Just come out and say it, Kelly.


So this here is the first edition cover, and also the 50th anniversary cover, and – and I don’t really know what else to say about it.

To me it looks like someone spilled blood, or at least a fruit punchy Gatorade substitute, all over a Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book. There are better options.


Now let me introduce you to the ultimate in this pack of contenders.

Graphic designer J Hun Lee brings us to the periphery of possibility as his reworking of the book’s Sunday best is unfortunately unavailable in three-dimensional form. But it’s so fun to pretend…

J, seeming to be a medium-ist, could take some notes from Winton above, perhaps on her publication success but also on her restraint. I like to pretend that the upright text flanking the top and bottom of this rounded masterpiece does not exist. With that qualifier out of the way, we can dive into the genius.

This is the first cover that we’ve covered that covers the title of the book. Not in mention only, not merely in creamsicle coloration, but in the truest definitions of what Burgess meant by a clockwork orange: nature turned to mechanism.

Those cog letters' vague resemblance to the second word of the title precisely expresses the dehumanization that animates the plot and greater themes of the novel. Meanwhile the southeastern hemisphere personifies the opposite, inviting letters bulging with ripeness, an Edenic fruit turned to text. These opposing compositions struggle for supremacy inside of Alex, inside of us, and inside of what the book is trying to say – making their dance of dualism a fitting cover for one of literature’s finest works under 250 pages.

And if used books give you the heebie jeebies, or maybe an old Eucalyptus wronged your family in the past, you can buy a brand new Clockwork Orange here.

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