The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

My Favourite Covers of 2010


At the end of last year, Joseph Sullivan, curator of the late lamented The Book Design Review, asked me to write about my favourite covers of 2010. I’d always stayed away from such posts in the past because it was Joseph’s thing (his 2009 list is here). But since it was Joe who was doing the asking and The BDR was on “indefinite hiatus,” how could I not?

For various reasons, the list I compiled didn’t get used in the end, and it has sat in my drafts folder for about year now. I now have a list of my favourite covers of 2011, but before I post it I thought I would share that original list from 2010, if only for a bit of context.

I’ve made a few minor alterations to the list I sent to Joe — mostly to better accommodate the series designs and to fully utilise 12 months of regret and hindsight — but it is more or less intact, in spirit at least.

I’ve included the short introduction I wrote for the original piece to explain my process (or lack thereof…).

(Hindsight = 20/20: Apparently I like negative space. A LOT).

The Top 10 Book Covers of 2010

Selecting an annual top 10 of anything — film, music, books — is fraught with difficulty. Not only do you have to sift through all things you have seen, heard, and read over the course of a year (assuming you can remember them all), you must somehow take into account all the things you meant to get to and didn’t (where does one even start?). Worse, you are haunted by the awful, inevitable realization that there were any number of incredible things so outside your usual cultural range that they didn’t even register on your consciousness — the “unknown unknowns,” to borrow Donald Rumsfeld’s immortal phrase. Fate usually decides that you will discover at least one previously unknown work of brilliance exactly 24-hours after you publicly declare your favourites…

Then, having grappled with (ignored) all those thorny issues (and plunged on regardless), there is further problem of what actually constitutes good (let alone “great”) book cover design. Part science, part art (part pleasing interested parties), good book cover design is slippery and alchemical. How does one judge? Using what criteria? Ask 10 designers and you will surely get 10 differently nuanced answers.

I have not read all the books on this list, so I cannot claim authority on appropriateness of every cover to its subject (surely an significant consideration, and yet who would want to limit their list only to the books they had read?), so my criteria, such as they were, included the quality of the overall design — the composition, image selection and typography — as well as originality, swagger and the indefinable  je ne sais quoi essential in my opinion to really great covers.

And with that complete abdication from any claim to comprehensiveness or authority, I introduce my picks for the top 10 book covers of the last year with apologies to all the designers — particularly outside of North America and the UK — whose amazing work I have missed, forgotten, or otherwise neglected.

The covers are presented in alphabetically by title.

An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin, designed by Darren Booth (Grand Central Publishing)

The Big Short by Michael Lewis, designed by Darren Haggar (W.W. Norton)

Democracy in What State? by Giorgio Agamben et al, designed by David Drummond (Columbia University Press)

Ethics of Interrogation by Michael Skerker, designed by Isaac Tobin (University of Chicago Press)

Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years by Ilan Stavans, designed by Jason Ramirez (Palgrave-Macmillan)

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco, designed by Gray318 (Picador UK, Hamish Hamilton Canada)

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, designed by Roberto de Vicq (Random House)

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross, designed by Peter Mendelsund (A.A. Knopf)

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, designed by Rodrigo Corral Design (Random House)

A Wall in Palestine by René Backmann (translated by A. Kaiser), designed by Henry Sene Yee (Picador)


Cormac McCarthy series, designed by David Pearson (Picador UK)

F. Scott Fitzgerald series,  designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith (Penguin)

Vintage Foucault, designed by Peter Mendelsund (Vintage)

Penguin Great Ideas V.5, Art director David Pearson; designed by Phil Baines, Catherine Dixon, Alistair Hall, David Pearson et al (Penguin)

Honourable Mentions

  1. Acme Novelty Library #20: Lint by Chris Ware, Drawn & Quarterly
  2. C by Tom McCarthy, designed by Peter Mendelsund (A.A. Knopf)
  3. In Utopia by J.C. Hallman, designed by Jason Ramirez (St. Martin’s Press)
  4. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton, designed by Jamie Keenan (Vintage Books)
  5. Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit, by Darwyn Cooke (IDW)
  6. Seven Good Reasons Not to be John Gould, designed by David A. Gee (HarperCollins Canada)
  7. The Storm by Margriet de Moor (translated by Carol Brown Janeway)designed by Barbara deWilde (A.A. Knopf )
  8. The War on Words by Michael T. Gilmore,  designed by Isaac Tobin (University of Chicago Press)
  9. Strange Bedfellows by Howard Richler, designed by David Drummond (Ronsdale Press)
  10. Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk, designed by Rodrigo Corral Design (W.W. Norton)
  11. Trespass by Rose Tremain, designed by Chin-Yee Lai (W.W. Norton)
  12. Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven K. Amsterdam, designed by Peter Mendelsund (Pantheon)
  13. Transnationalism edited by Michael Behiels & Reginald C. Stuart, designed by Michel Vrana (McGill-Queens University Press)
  14. What Is All This? by Stephen Dixon, designed by Jacob Covey (Fantagraphics)
  15. Your Presence is Requested At Suvanto by Maile Chapman, designed by Kimberly Glyder (Greywolf Press)

This year’s list will be posted soon.

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  1. Dan: So glad you posted this; sorry I couldn’t.

  2. Hey Joseph. It’s all good! The 2011 list is causing me some anxiety, but stay tuned… :-)

  3. Pingback: 50 Covers for 2013 | The Casual Optimist

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