Shelf Evaluation: Judging Books by Their Covers

In this new feature, we’re asking Booklisters to give themselves a “shelf evaluation.” The rules are simple: pick any shelf in your home library, take a picture of it as is (no alphabetizing, no dusting), and then . . . explain your shelf!


“Oh, my pounding heart, the jackets, it made my scrotum tingle just to touch them.” –from The Bookwoman’s Last Fling, by John Dunning

I first encountered this unforgettable quote around the time that the word scrotum was enjoying its 15 minutes of fame—you remember, the libraryland brouhaha over the fact that children’s author Susan Patron let a single scrotum wriggle its way into her Newbery-winning The Higher Power of Lucky. Curiously, the quote in Dunning’s 2006 novel about a bibliophile sleuth with a fondness for book jackets was in reference to the jackets from some rare copies of A. A. Milne’s Pooh books—yet another linking of scrotums to children’s books! For me, though, if a book jacket is going to set my scrotum tingling, it almost certainly will be one adorning a drugstore-rack paperback from the forties through the early sixties. And that, at long last, brings us to my shelf evaluation.

I started collecting vintage paperbacks decades ago and have concentrated my efforts on several types: anything by the hard-boiled giants of the era (Chandler, Cain, Hammett); anything with an especially lurid jacket, no matter the author; anything that panders in a particularly juicy way to the underworld “sins” of drugs and sex; and classic works of English and American literature reincarnated in the pulp style. What makes this last category so wonderful is the campy juxtaposition of fifties culture against nineteenth- or early-twentieth century subject matter. Thomas Hardy novels are great for this, as is almost anything by D. H. Lawrence. For example, I have a delicious copy of Lawrence’s Love among the Haystacks in which the jacket artist transports to Nottinghamshire a couple of earthy Erskine Caldwell characters (like those visible on the jacket of Tobacco Road facing out on the top shelf above).

Hardy and Algren

In addition to paperbacks, that same top shelf holds my 60-year-old collection of Hardy Boys novels. My friend Rob and I were devoted followers of Frank and Joe in our early elementary-school years and concluded after much debate that The Yellow Feather Mystery was the jewel in Franklin W. Dixon’s crown. This 1953 first edition also boasts a damn snappy jacket, though not exactly in the pulp style.

Moving down to the lower shelf, let’s pull out a few titles for a closer look:

The Jungle, by Nelson Algren

This one has an interesting history. Algren’s first novel, published in 1935, was called Somebody in Boots. It sold a tepid 750 copies before going out of print. This paperback curiosity, identified as an “adaptation of Somebody in Boots,” followed in the early fifties. Was it really an adaptation, or was the title merely changed to capitalize on the public’s fascination with so-called juvenile delinquents (check out the tagline, “A great novel of lawless youth”)? Either way, the jacket is surely a scrotum-tingler. The novel itself, not so much.

MacDonald and Chandler

The Drowning Pool, by John Ross Macdonald

Great cover, surely, but a puzzler: What is that girl doing standing waist-deep in water while fully dressed and smoking a cigarette? Could it be that, in 1951, every girl on a paperback cover had to be smoking and wearing a tight sweater, even if she happened to be in a lake? The other memorable thing about this edition is the author’s name. Kenneth Millar created one of the signature hard-boiled heroes in the genre: private eye Lew Archer, who starred in 18 novels, published from 1949 through 1976. But Millar had troubled settling on a pseudonym. He tried John Macdonald first but then moved to John Ross Macdonald, as he appears here in his second Archer novel; but, finally, he dropped the John altogether to avoid confusion with John D. MacDonald and became the Ross Macdonald whom hard-boiled fans revere.

Farewell My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler

This is one of the shining lights of my collection. It’s the first paper edition of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, from 1943, and it’s one of the oldest paperbacks I own. And while the cover isn’t in the lush realistic style of James Avati, my favorite paperback illustrator, its vaguely art deco approach is equally stunning—and a bit unusual for hard-boiled fiction. That’s Moose Malloy on the cover, about to barge into Florian’s bar in L.A. in search of his beloved Velma. It doesn’t go well for Moose, despite Philip Marlowe’s attempts to help.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

Here’s another classic paperback with lots of backstory. That’s Holden Caulfield on the cover, of course, wearing his signature red hunting hat in the first paperback edition of the novel. Salinger absolutely hated this cover and—showing early signs of the cantankerous streak that came to define his personality—demanded that it be removed from all subsequent editions and be replaced by the now-iconic plain maroon cover with yellow type. That’s the version most people recognize today, as it has adorned millions of high-school students’ copies over the decades. OK, the stark cover makes a kind of pompous sense for a book that needs no introduction, but I love the original. Not only is it in the pulp style, but it captures poor, mixed-up Holden’s confusion at encountering a world that looks just as phony, both in appearance and reality, as the prep school he seeks to escape.

There you have a quick look at two of my bookshelves. I could go on . . . and on and on. There are many more shelves to evaluate in my house, but I fear I might die of nostalgia if I continue (and you, dear reader, would surely die of boredom).





About the Author:

After more than 30 years at Booklist, editor and publisher Bill Ott continues to edit the crime fiction section of the magazine and still delights in discovering new hard-boiled writers. Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Bill.

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