Bizarro Textbooks From the Front Lines

by tigermanifesto

Hatred of textbook extortion is probably the one thing that could unite all North American university students. Copyright being what it is, there is often a disconnect between the size of the books we buy and the prices we are expected to pay. I’ve been up close and personal with the textbook buying process in the last couple of weeks, and have a few tidbits I thought were worth a late-night article. A little dip into the twilight zone of textbooks, we’ll say.

Human beings, especially human beings at a retail establishment, rely on their eyes to a disproportionate degree. It’s how we judge most food, meaning companies spend much of their time grooming food to look sexier rather than, you know, taste more delicious. Our visual impulses when buying books tell us that the larger and heavier the book, the more it should cost. A book the size of a pamphlet, in our minds, probably shouldn’t set us back more than ten dollars. But if it’s a collection of readings published in academic journals, that wafer-thin book is going to inflict punishment to the tune of over fifty dollars, at least. In this case, knowledge of publishing market dynamics is more useful than a visual impression. It still leaves many students with their jaws on the floor, dragging sadly as they walk out of the store with their newly purchased millstones.

But when it comes to textbooks and visual discrepancies, I’m interested in juicier material. Namely, the weird mismatch between what a book’s contents might be and the cover the publisher chose to wrap their product in. In a whirlwind of both direct experience and quick web searches, I discovered a few books that range from head-scratching to truly beyond the pale of reasonable design. In fact, attempting to rationalize these covers is probably much more fun than reading the words.

As an unrelated first example, I cannot begin to tell you why Monthly Review Press published a book on the financial crisis and put Samir Amin's mug on the cover. Haymarket would never pull this stunt.

As an unrelated first example, I cannot begin to tell you why Monthly Review Press published a book on the financial crisis and put Samir Amin’s mug on the cover. Haymarket would never pull this stunt.

Let’s ease into it. First, we have a textbook called Psychology: Themes and Variations, written by a trio of authors and published by Nelson. For comparison, let’s take a look at a version of this venerable text from the late 1990s:


It looks dated now, but the abstract approach to the cover graphic has kept it relatively appealing and you could make a strong case for why this picture is on the front of a psychology textbook. Sure, it could also adorn a geometry textbook or a half dozen other subjects, but, unlike the new version, it does not actively disguise itself as another subject. Behold:


I don’t recall noticing the Stephen Hawking quotation on the physical copies I’ve seen, but even with it removed, the first thought anyone would have upon seeing this book is “space.” In a more just alternate universe, this is an astronomy textbook. It’s true that you could argue that we perceive space with our minds or that the stars and the sky can function as a visual metaphor for psychology in some way. But it’s so much of a stretch that it utterly fails to communicate itself visually. Adding that Hawking quotation just makes me all the more suspicious that these covers were printed with the wrong title and author’s name and the publishing firm just shrugged and sent them out to unsuspecting psych students who are going to learn much more about Jupiter’s moons than they bargained for.

Our next specimen also upsets my expectations, but in a much less bemusing way. When you think of Plato’s Republic, or, for that matter, Plato at all, you probably visualize something like this:


Or this


Both are sensible, no-nonsense covers that accurately convey the fact that this is a book written by a Greek philosopher named Plato who probably had a beard of some luxuriousness. They’re staid and predictable, but that is almost comforting to the average first-year student in an intro to philosophy class. What follows is a cover that makes a modicum of sense but still made me do a double take when I saw it:


True, The Republic/Republic does at times concern a vaguely utopian civilization that acts as a detailed metaphor for Plato’s ideal society of virtue. I would argue that the blinding sunset in 1980s Dystopia does not accurately convey this information. As a matter of fact, this design reminds me of nothing as much as airport novel books where the author’s name is printed so gigantically that the background could be anything and still pass stealthily by. It’s not baffling like the psych book, but it’s still a puzzling choice when “pasty statue” and “that one painting” are such obvious alternatives. I understand the need for a distinctive cover, but this is actually less distinctive than the stereotypical Plato covers, sublimating into something that is just truly bland.

From here we cross into uncharted territory, where respectable publishing houses produce material that actively confounds perception. These need less comment if only because their strange inappropriate design is much more blatant. Example:


Oxford, as many might know, is a university complex in England, quite some distance away from Canada. I state this obvious geographical fact only because it’s the only straw I can grasp at to explain why the usually astute design team at Oxford decided to publish MacIvor’s book sheathed in a cover that does not even try to evoke its own subject matter. It appears to be depicting droplets of water and a meniscus or the top edge of some water in a container. A few of these drops are wayward, perhaps more free-willed than the others, drifting toward the bottom of the cover while leaving enough wiggle room to put the title and author’s name in there. I would love a cogent explanation of this, but I’m not holding my breath. What’s next?


Well, I…


Not sure…


Just a second!


For a brief and magic moment I thought the chicken was nesting on sheet music, but it was just my brain trying to trick me into thinking this makes sense.

Not really anywhere else to go. I suppose I would be able to write this off as “following tradition” if it weren’t for the fact that the book used to look like this:


Which means the chicken was without a doubt intentionally introduced as a theme. Good night, everyone.