As powerful as our favorite books are, they have one limitation: they can’t hook us until we read the text. Even books capable of grabbing us with the first sentence need a moment of our attention to work their magic.
That’s why the job of book jacket designers is so important. With clean lines, a compelling image, and a memorable font, a book’s cover can pull us to the shelf and invite us to open a novel. These are our picks for the most iconic book covers. And if you feel like testing your knowledge of other iconic book covers, take this quiz!
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
The designer Paul Bacon was known for his “Big Book” style of book jacket design. The “Big Book Look” meant putting the author and title front and center with a large font. With just the text and a small, iconic image (like the red jumping figure on Catch-22’s cover), Bacon was able to create some of history’s most compelling covers.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
J.D. Salinger’s books often featured clean, simple covers. The reason for this was the author himself, who insisted on simple covers without extraneous text. The Catcher in the Rye’s original cover is a notable and memorable exception to Salinger’s otherwise overly simple covers.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1972)
A Clockwork Orange was published in 1962 with a different cover. This 1972 version came on the heels of the film release (1971, directed by Stanley Kubrick.) Designed by David Pelham, this is the most iconic cover of Anthony Burgess’ most famous book.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
The typographical cover of Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestselling novel was one of the most recognizable book jackets of the 2000s. The style is typical of designer Jon Gray (a.k.a. Gray 318), who often uses flowing text as the dominant, if not exclusive, feature of his covers. He also designed the cover for Foer’s first novel, Everything is Illuminated.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969)
S. Neil Fujita’s bold text, simple color scheme, and ominous font is so defined in The Godfather cover, that his style was carried into the branding of the film version (1972, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.) The branding stuck around for the book and movie sequels, too. Even decades later, the font and style of The Godfather’s cover are instantly recognizable.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
F. Scott Fitzgerald saw Spanish artist Francis Cugat’s art before the manuscript for The Great Gatsby was complete. Fitzgerald was so thrilled with the design that he wrote his editor to demand the art be held for his novel. “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me,” Fitzgerald wrote, “I’ve written it into the book.”
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1943)
More than 70 years after its publication, the art style of The Little Prince remains famous all over the world. In all of its different editions, the cover has remained pretty much the same. Like the rest of the illustrations, the cover art was done by the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)
The cover of Portnoy’s Complaint is the most extreme example of Paul Bacon’s “Big Book” style. Bacon doesn’t use any iconography at all, relying only on a distinctive font and bold color scheme to sell the novel. For some reason, it works!
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
Another remarkable effort from designer Paul Bacon, the Slaughterhouse-Five cover combines his trademark big text with a creative typographic style. The title arcs up over the alternate title and author’s name, creating the impression of a tombstone. Though the novel has since been re-published with other covers, this remains the defining version of the jacket.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
The simple but evocative cover of To Kill a Mockingbird is instantly recognizable. The cover is so important to the novel’s image that the cover of Go Set a Watchman, published 55 years later, was designed to emulate the original style. The cover was designed by Shirley Smith.