Judging a Book by its Cover: The Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition of “the Communist Manifesto”

20130714_115813While I was perusing the bookstore the other day, I came across this book cover, curious to say the least.  No doubt it did its job; the cover caught my attention.  Wincing and tilting my head to make sense of it, I was drawn to its surreal and uncanny artwork only to find upon further inspection that it was a Penguin Classic — deluxe edition, no less.  As if that was not enough, it is the 2011 edition of the Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848; I presume no introduction to these iconic figures is necessary.  The cover art for this edition of the book was done by an artist named Patrice Killoffer, who prefers to go simply by his family name.  Here then is a comic book artist who has illustrated for Penguin Classics a rendition of a man, a proletariat in red, if you will, being crushed under the heel of a black boot, no doubt worn by the bourgeois.  Don’t forget the pigs in top hats found in the lower right-hand corner, or the train choo-chooing across the top of the page.  The type set used for the title of the book couldn’t be any more flippant, either.  I feel I understand why the book was illustrated the way it was, given it has always been viewed with intense scrutiny since its initial publication in 1848, but that doesn’t mean I like the cover art for this particular copy, what with its squiggly lines and child-like depictions.

In fact, what astonishes, and even irks me a bit about this book cover is that it diminishes the importance this book has held in the philosophical development of the human race.  Here is a book, a manifesto, a living document that at the time sought to motivate people politically to change the way they lived.  It became the basis for a major political movement that swept over the planet and was the cause for many major wars during the 20th century.  In my opinion its intentions as a pamphlet were meant for the greater good, as it sought to change the current (from an 1848 perspective) social conditions — in theory it sought to change the world for the better; however, in practical application, it did not take into account abuse of power and the corrupting nature of greed.  As Stephen Holmes from the London Review of Books reminds us, it may be difficult to read this book with a fresh set of eyes, considering the damage wrought by its implications during the Cold War, but that doesn’t mean we should debase the influence and importance it has had in shaping our identities.  In fact, many scholars would argue to the contrary.  Eric Hobsbawm is one such scholar who “urges us to experience the work as a stirring piece of ‘literature’. Admitting that it is ‘a historical document, out of date in many respects’, he invites us to appreciate its rhetorical élan and even to feel its ‘Biblical force’” (qtd. in Holmes).  Sympathizing with Holmes and Hobsbawm, I cannot help but feel that this book cover is bias toward an anti-communist mentality, immediately imposing on any reader of this important document these sentiments.

This is one case where I would urge someone NOT to judge a book by its cover.  If you really want to learn what the Communist Manifesto is about, read it for yourself.  Don’t let some book publisher and a flippant comic book artist warp your judgement of an idea before an your own opinion of it can even be made.

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2 comments

  1. Hi James, I think you’re right in saying that Killoffer’s illustration may be an “an attempt at a fresh approach with hopes of getting more young people to read the manifesto.” Like I said at the beginning of my post, it caught my attention, to which I picked up to look at it, so it must be doing something. I think the abstract nature of the illustration also allows the artist >>>to<<< draw the content in the way that he does. But, then again, that is one of the potentials for abstract art — to symbolize things that are otherwise offensive or derogatory in nature.

  2. Thank you for the post! And I completely agree with your stance on this cover illustration. It just don’t seem that the theme and tone are appropriate for the material just as you pointed out. I’m of the opinion that younger generations can be greatly negatively impacted by, dare I call it a misrepresentation, such as this. The other day I saw a teenage boy wearing a logo t-shirt with the iconic silhouette of Ernesto Guevara on the front.

    Call me judgmental, or perhaps even cynical, but I somehow doubt that this young man even knew who the man represented on the front of his shirt was, much less the circumstances of his life, death, and what he died representing. I am not a communist, however, I think that the idealistic polarization that often takes place when communism is mentioned is quite unfair to the idealists and some of the people that made sacrifices to further what they thought would be a solution to some of the most persistent and heartbreaking problems that plagued the history of human civilization.

    As you mentioned in your post, communism is often associated with some of the most horrible and destructive events in recent history. However, I would argue with anyone (armed with a good deal of supporting facts to back me up) who would claim that other “solutions” to the social/economic problems that have faced humans since the dawn of civilizations have not also caused equal, if not more suffering. I would actually be curious to know if the artist responsible for the cover illustration was attempting to intentionally make light of the document, or making an attempt at a fresh approach with hopes of getting more young people to read the manifesto. In either case, you are correct in encouraging the reader not to pass early judgement. Thanks for the post!

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