This week’s question comes from our very own Dan Caffrey:
Have you ever bought something based on its cover?
At 16, I fancied myself a budding revolutionary, rattling the cages of my conservative prep school as a punk-rock liberal firebrand. As such, the inverted American flag and screaming typeface of Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele’s 1992 book America: What Went Wrong? all but insisted I buy it—well, ask my mom to buy it—during a trip to the book store. Barlett and Steele are prone to such books, as they followed it up in 1996 with America: Who Stole The Dream?, with the same typeface and inverted American flag on the cover. (In between was America: Who Really Pays The Taxes?) The duo were a celebrated investigative-reporting team for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Time for four decades and have a truckload of awards to their names (including two Pulitzers). I’m sure their book had a lot to say—it’s still in print—but my copy sat unread for years on my bookshelf before I finally donated it.
It seems impossible to me now that I could ever walk into a game store and buy something I hadn’t researched beforehand. Video game coverage has become saturated and even the smallest independent releases are accompanied by an embarrassment of information. In retrospect I feel innocent, possibly even naïve that I bought a copy of Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night—one of the most beloved titles in video gamedom—with no notion of what I was getting. The late ’90s were not a high point in the always-dubious world of video game box art and Symphony Of The Night was no exception. The cover boasts every preset gimmick available in the emerging field of Photoshop layout. “Castlevania” is written in bright yellow embossed text with a fuzzy red glow placed in front of an indifferently cropped stock-photo castle. I’m almost pathologically unable to spend money on entertainment I haven’t thoroughly vetted beforehand, so I have no idea what capricious spirit of capitalist adventure imbued me that day. The bright, over-saturated colors exuded a contagious enthusiasm. I’m glad I did because Symphony Of The Night remains one of my favorite games. It’s a perfect blend of action and roleplaying elements and you get to spend part of the adventure as a poison gas cloud. That alone vindicates the purchase.
I was never an enormous fan of hardcore IDM growing up, despite having a punk’s love of abrasive noise. For some reason, the eardrum-shattering throb of groups like Atari Teenage Riot never connected with me as a young devotee of extreme sounds. I had been raised on traditional live instruments, and it took some work to jar me out of that bias. Luckily, that jarring event took the form of a CD I randomly saw in an NYC record store in the mid-2000s, and decided I had to have: Electronic music artist Kid606’s 2002 album The Action Packed Mentallist Brings You The Fucking Jams. I mean, just look at that title. How do you not pick that up? It turned out to be a mashup album, back before that was much of a thing, splicing together songs Kid606 had downloaded and funneled into his hyperactive and spastic breakbeat style at the time. It’s a little uneven, but the best tracks, like “MP3 Killed The CD Star,” are a potent blend, and turned out to be just the thing for helping me turn the corner on more out-there electronic music. It may sound rote now, but at the time, hearing him slowly deconstruct Missy Elliott saying the phrase “Don’t copy me” into an endlessly repeated loop of “copy copy copy copy” felt like an American punk-rock version of Negativland, just finding its feet.
While my mother searched for Heywood-Wakefield furniture and bakelite hardware during the numerous visits to antique stores my family made during my childhood, I’d hunt for beverage bottles and sift through old books, inhaling their distinct, dusty smell before placing them back on the shelves. I only purchased Nancy Drew novels, with one exception, and solely because the cover was so eye-catching: Digby George Gerahty’s Elephant Walk. It’s not something I would have read otherwise, and remains an outlier among my favorite books, its pretty cover now worn through at the binding. Published in 1949 under the pen Robert Standish, it chronicles an Englishman’s fortunes growing tea in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and his sensible, somewhat unhappy wife, whisked away from her boring English existence to what she thought would be a life of exotic adventure. I loved it in middle school, long before I learned about orientalism and colonialism, both prominently on display in Elephant Walk. But for a 1949 book it could be a lot worse on those fronts, and it can actually be read as a critique of the English imperialism of the times, as things don’t exactly fare well for the white people exploiting a foreign land’s natural resources and peoples. It was made into a movie in 1954 starring Elizabeth Taylor, which I haven’t seen, and frankly probably won’t. I’ll re-read the book instead.
During the mid to late ’90s, my suburban Chicago Best Buy was perpetually overstocked with two VHS tapes: The Stoned Age and The Doom Generation. Both distributed by Vidmark Entertainment, the company must have hemorrhaged massive dollars stocking the shelves with these salacious titles, luring high school stoners with seductive covers promising sex, drugs, and amoral cheap thrills. I was the perfect demographic and being vaguely aware of Gregg Araki, quickly scooped up The Doom Generation. However, The Stoned Age caught my eye with the particularly misleading quote—“Better than Dazed And Confused”—and pure curiosity. I knew I was in for a bargain-basement rip off, but my buddies and I grew to love this scruffy little oddity. Following the adventures of teenage headbangers Joe and Hubbs (both looking well into their 20s), the film traces their nocturnal odyssey to procure beer and score fine chicks. That’s literally it. Dumb fun ensues, and the film is responsible for a loving endorsement of Blue Öyster Cult long before Will Ferrell ever picked up a cowbell.
I love digging through Goodwill bookshelves and used-book stores for oddities, a world where a good title can mean all the difference between whether I drop a buck on a self-published, madness-tinged paperback or not. My weakness for the lurid and the weird was how I came into possession of both Hal Lindsey’s (surprisingly dull) Satan Is Alive And Well On Planet Earth, and the far more satisfyingly bonkers Cousin Henry Potter And The Terrible Time Machine. Credited to “Henry Potter” (in actuality Seventh-Day Adventist minister Jan Marcussen), the book purports to tell the first-person account of Harry Potter’s hitherto unknown cousin, who joins his famous relation at Hogwarts for some time-traveling shenanigans. But gosh, wouldn’t you know it, that terrible time machine keeps sending the boys back, not to pivotal moments in history, but to scenes from the Bible, where they stand around politely while religious figures lengthily debate theology at them (usually in script format, since the book loses track of its traditional manuscript formatting about two chapters in). I gifted the book to a friend years ago, so I don’t have a picture of the cover, but I do remember that it was mostly blank, with the name of the book surrounded by some clip-art images of clocks. Which just goes to show: When you’ve got the perfect title, that’s really all your cover needs.
I don’t buy all of my music on vinyl these days, but the percentage has certainly gone up in recent years, which also ups the possibility of buying something because of a striking image. For example, I knew very little about the English band Drenge beyond its song “Bloodsports,” which my wife put at the end of a mix CD for me with the accompanying notation: “Don’t get into Drenge.” But when I came across its self-titled 2013 debut in the record store, the black-and-white cover photograph of a Sheffield cemetery overlooking a field of cars, combined with the band’s name embossed in shiny silver on the back, sold me on it. I haven’t listened to it much; I don’t think I’ve even yet managed to use the download card to put the album on my iPod. But it looks great, and I admit that with my stack of vinyl records, that’s not an entirely negligible consideration anymore.
When I was a sophomore in college, I got new glasses. This was, for me, a pretty big deal; after wearing standard thin frames for most of my life, I decided (entirely on my own) to upgrade to the thick, black hipster look—essentially, I went from glasses that tried to pretend they didn’t exist to glasses that refused to be ignored. It was all very meta. What matters is that when one of my uncles saw my new glasses at Christmas, he congratulated me on my “Elvis Costello look.” I had no idea who Elvis Costello was, but the next time I was in a music store, I looked him up. The cover of King Of America looked so cool that I decided to buy it without every having listened to a single song. Within months, I was getting every Costello album I could get my hands on. I still wear the same glasses I did then, and I still think This Year’s Model is genius, so I feel good about my choices.