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Judging The Pilgrim's Progress by its cover (1 of 2)

We have the warning that you should not judge a book by its cover precisely because we do. In fact, cover exist, at least latterly, to enable judgment that leads to purchase. Book may succeed despite their covers but they can also succeed because of their cover, even, for a while, despite their content! American literary author, Jhumpa Lahiri, has a delightful little book translating and expanding a lecture she gave in Italian in her adopted home country on the subject of book covers. She call this 'The Clothing of Books.'

Lahiri has the perspective of a living author who has successfully sold books internationally. She points out that authors rarely have any input, or even then, any significant influence on the style of clothing their bound words will wear. A quick internet search shows multiple covers of the same title. Marketers in different places judge certain images to work irrespective of, or tangentially related, to the actual content of the books. Lahiri, as an author of Indian heritage notes that her covers often feature stock images of Indian exoticism, even if the book's story is set in the USA.

The Pilgrim's Progress of 1678 would be dull. We don't know for sure if the first edition had a frontispiece, but the 3rd onwards did, with illustrations by way of woodcuts gradually introduced. Bunyan does claim, in his introduction to Part II in 1784, that his Pilgrim (the book) was received in New England 'Trimm'd, new-Cloth'd, & deck'd with gems.' Perhaps there were fancy, even ornate bindings, often arranged by individual buyers who improved upon the unbound pages, but gems is more likely to be a metaphorical celebration of his international fame.

It is most significantly with the paperback book that variety of design and color come to adorn copies of The Pilgrim's Progress. I've written about the possible meanings of book and other cover art in an article for a forthcoming book, Global Bunyan and Visual Art. Let me finish this blog showing one way which the book can be decorated by a cover. This comes from the Christian educational press Abeka.

Designed for 12th grade English Literature students, this edition's cover is interesting. Like many others it depicts Christian with his burden - not particularly bowed down, given his pretty good posture here. He holds an open book (bible) in his hand. Beardedly male, he is dated as of old times by his knee high stockings. It unusual for his direction of travel to be from right to left, in a reversal of the cultural norm for signaling progress visually. The hiking Christian, well equipped with a sturdy staff is superimposed on another image. Here we see fidelity to Bunyan's full title: The Pilgrim's Progress from THIS WORLD, to That which it to come, Delivered under the Similitude of a DREAM Wherein is Discovered The manner of his setting out, His Dangerous Journey; and safe Arrival at the Desired Country.

This edition shows the bright shining city above the clouds shining its rays of celestial light downward through the blue that dominates the center of the picture. Is this sky or water? Gold cloaked figures in white, presumably Shining ones, wait at this side of the water or on earth to usher Christian (much later in his journey) upward to the city above. If the blue is water the City emerges, elevated, and shrouded in cloud in brilliant splendor from the landscape on the other side. If the blue is sky, the city is above the clouds floating in other worldly promise.

So the cover image conveys the journey motif as well as the glorious destination and the agency of celestial beings in getting the foregrounded Christian to his destination.

In another post, we'll see how the same press can use a different image for the same book and what might be communicated by it.

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