One Book, Three Boats

As you may have guessed by now, I love to compare covers of the same book that appear in different places, or else over the course of different editions. Sometimes these comparisons can be very funny because of the wide disparity between covers for the same book — so much so that at times you wonder if the covers belong to the same book at all. The publication of Michael Ondaatje’s new novel The Cat’s Table at the end of the summer has given me am opportunity to compare and contrast the book’s covers in the UK, the US, and Canada. This particular book caught my attention for a comparative study because, unlike what is sometimes seen, all three covers feature the same elements — namely a large boat at sea — but interpret the subject in slightly different ways. 

I’ll start with the US edition, published by Knopf, whose cover caps this post. The image used on the cover, in shades of coal-grey and black, has a nostalgic quality to it. It looks like a grainy, poorly developed black and white photograph. The dreamy effect is hightened by the tight framing of the image on the very front of the boat. I quite like it, although if anything maybe the white border at the top and bottom where the text appears makes it a little bit too serious. 

The Canadian edition, published by McClelland and Steward, has a similarly quirkiness to it, created by the slanting of the photo of the boat. The picture is also taken from a much greater distance, and the entirety of the boat and a swath of grey sea is revealed. A sense of age and nostalgia is signified by the sepia tint, the washed out clouds, and the classic border. The effect of the entire composition is much more conservative and toned down (and even, dare I say, boring) than the US cover, despite the bolder font and use of some color. 

As for the British cover, published by Jonathan Cape, the subject is, again, a boat, but it is treated much more boldly by a cartoonish image — it could be right out of a Tintin album — in tones of white, black, and yellow against a dark sky. The main boat is also flanked by two tug boats, rendered in darker shades, one of which stands at the forefront of the image. Like in the US cover the boat is facing and sailing towards the viewer, which makes the illustration much less static. Moreover the energetic imagery and block-lettered, shadowed font used for the title makes this cover eye-catching and interesting to look at. Both the subject and the aesthetics remind me of the cover for Tagore’s Nationalism, published in the trove of beautiful book covers that is the Penguin Great Ideas series. 

I haven’t read The Cat’s Table so I can’t say if the cover respects the content of the novel (although it looks promising since I know the action takes place on a boat), but I wonder how efficient these covers as stand-alone works of commercial art? I would argue that I find the UK cover more interesting than the others, but do you think there is one that works better than the others aesthetically, or from a marketing standpoint? I’d love to know your thoughts…

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About Charles-Adam Foster-Simard

Reader, writer, retired book-seller, traveller, food-lover, jogger. Sometime book-blogger. I come from Montreal, but I now live in Vancouver, where I'm doing an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. View all posts by Charles-Adam Foster-Simard

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