First things first. What makes a book cover iconic? There are no hard and fast rules, of course—like anything else, you know it when you see it. But in order to compile this list, I looked for recognizability, ubiquity, and reproduction—that is, if there are a million Etsy stores selling t-shirts/buttons/posters/tote bags with the book cover, or if someone you know has ever dressed up as it for Halloween, or has a tattoo of it, it probably counts as iconic. That is: the most iconic book covers exist as cultural artifacts that are attached to, but slightly separate from, the books they were designed for. (That’s an admittedly hazy threshold, but what isn’t these days?)
There is some relationship, of course, between a book’s inherent popularity and endurance (we might call this its “classic” status) and the recognizability of its cover, particularly its first cover, if it was done right, and there can also be a relationship between the quality of design itself and its iconic-ness, but neither of these things are necessarily predictive. For instance, I would argue that, famous as the book may be, there is no iconic cover of Lolita. The iconic image that you’re thinking of—heart-shaped sunglasses, etc.—is of course from Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, and while it has been used in various ways on multiple Lolita reprints since, that’s not quite the same thing. There are plenty of terrible covers for Lolita and also some good ones, but this isn’t quite enough either. Conversely, there have been hundreds of beautiful or clever or well-designed covers published over the years, but very few have actually made it to cultural icon status. We hold out hope.
N.B. that I excluded children’s books for this list, even The Hobbit and The Little Prince, iconic though they are! (The rules are slightly different for children’s books, in my opinion, so that’s an adventure for another time.) It also feels a little premature to count anything published in the last 30 years as “iconic,” so you won’t see more recent-but-recognizable covers like Conversations With Friends or A Little Life here either. Icons to be, perhaps. Finally, this list necessarily comes from an American viewpoint—I’d love to hear if there are other book covers that are more iconic than these in other countries.
There are innumerable different covers for Jane Austen’s most beloved novel, but this one—which originally covered the first fully illustrated edition of the novel, published by George Allen—was not only the most popular edition at the time but continues to be the version most used for merch.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; cover art by Francis Cugat, 1925
This may be the most recognizable book cover in American literature, but it also has an unusual history. For one thing, it was the only cover that Spanish artist Cugat ever designed. For another, he completed the work before the manuscript was finished (he made $100), and it appears the cover actually influenced the book. “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me,” Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, “I’ve written it into the book.” This might have been a response to a sketch rather than the finished product, but either way, it influenced—and became—an American classic.
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World; cover design by Leslie Holland, 1932
There are several categories of Brave New World covers: pill covers, machine part covers, clone covers, and earth covers—many of which visually reference the original by Leslie Holland, which is still the most celebrated and iconic, despite the fact that Holland had famously never even read the book.
Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire; cover art by Alvin Lustig, 1947
The lithograph of Alvin Lustig’s cover for Williams’ play, which was published in hardcover by New Directions in 1947, is part of the permanent collection at the Cooper Hewitt museum.
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye; cover design by E. Michael Mitchell, 1951
Salinger was notoriously strict about the way his books were presented (you may recall that this is the only one with any kind of image at all). His close friend E. Michael Mitchell was his neighbor in Connecticut while he was writing his most famous work; reportedly, Salinger read bits of the book out loud to his friend as he was working on it, and eventually asked him to design the cover. Like the Austen above, it has been reproduced countless times on countless pieces of merchandise, and has graced more than a few dorm room walls in its time.
Invisible Man is sort of unusual, as literary classics go, in that it has seen a slew of great covers (my favorite is probably the Vintage Books 30th Anniversary edition) and few offensively bad ones (though I do find the current UK Penguin Classics edition to be rather too cute). But the first edition cover is still the most iconic—perhaps because of McKnight Kauffer’s background as a poster artist. And it turns out that McKnight Kauffer designed a lot of interesting covers in his time, including a 1938 edition of Rebecca and a 1941 edition of The Maltese Falcon that I had never seen before.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451; cover design by Joe Pernaciaro, illustration by Joseph Mugnain, 1953
It looks a little dated now, but it’s still the most recognizable—and iconic—cover for this beloved classic.
Robert Bloch, Psycho; cover design by Tony Palladino, 1959
Bloch’s typographical design for Bloch’s novel was so successful that Alfred Hitchcock purchased the rights to it for the film’s promotion; it also influenced Saul Bass’ opening credit sequence. According to The New York Times, Palladino “said the design—stark white letters torn and seemingly pasted together against a black background to resemble a ransom note—was intended to illustrate typographically the homicidal madness of the novel’s protagonist, Norman Bates. ‘How do you do a better image of Psycho than the word itself?’ he said.” Indeed.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird; cover design by Shirley Smith, 1960
Though there have been plenty of different covers for Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic—after all, it’s been translated into more than 40 languages and sold over 40 million copies—this first edition cover is still what you’d get if you say, went online to buy it right now. If you felt moved to look around for something else, you would be at least as likely as not to find one that was somehow picking up on that original tree motif. Though of course there’s the first British edition. A whole different vibe.
Joseph Heller, Catch-22; cover design by Paul Bacon, 1961
Just like To Kill a Mockingbird, there have been a few redesigns of Catch-22 here and there, but the original has stuck. In a lot of ways, Paul Bacon is just as iconic as any of the covers on this list—he is credited with inventing the “Big Book Look,” which Steven Heller summed up in a 2002 issue of Print Magazine: “large, bold title, prominent author’s name, small conceptual image.” Seen any of that around recently? I thought so. “His great innovation, in a way, was to rearrange the hierarchy of the book jacket,” Peter Mendelsund told ThinkProgress a few years ago. “There was a time when book jackets had to be filled, top to bottom, with realistic illustration. . . . Paul’s work brought into high relief that what we do is create hierarchy. When people talk about the Big Book Look, what they really mean is one element on the jacket is being foregrounded, is really large, and is crying out for your attention.”
That’s not the only reason we remember Bacon’s work so well. “Sometimes with a jacket, what you’re trying to do is essentially brand the book, as you would a corporation,” Mendelsund said. “You find some method, typographic or some emblematic image that will represent that thing. The brands that have survived in corporate culture are simple: they’re easy to remember, they’re eye-catching. So I think he sort of took that manner of thinking — I don’t know that he thought that overtly — but when I look at his jackets, I see that beautiful simplicity.”
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood; cover design by S. Neil Fujita, 1966
According to the Times, when Fujita first presented this cover to Capote, it was much the same—except for the coloring. The hatpin, with its tip “like a swollen drop of blood” was red; Capote objected, arguing that the crime wasn’t fresh enough for red blood. In response, Fujita “changed the color to burgundy and added a funereal black border to the jacket.”
Mario Puzo, The Godfather; cover design by S. Neil Fujita, illustration by John Kashiwabara, 1969
Much like Psycho, this cover has benefited from being used to promote the film adaptation, which was, in this case, the highest grossing film of 1972, and at the time the highest grossing film ever made—not to mention one of the most influential. Not a bad recipe for iconic-ness.
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; cover design by Janet Halverson, 1969
One of the most beloved—and merchandisable—book covers on this list. Halverson designed a lot of classics, including Angelou’s Gather Together in My Name, which picks up on the imagery from this iconic cover, and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, but I could find very little information about her. More biographies of female book cover designers, please.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five; cover design by Paul Bacon, 1969
Another Paul Bacon classic for a book that has been recovered countless times—this one has been mostly replaced in schools with the Dell paperback edition from the 90s, but it holds its own in the t-shirt market. Did you ever notice that the second ‘S’ is upside down?
Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint; cover design by Paul Bacon, 1969
Paul Bacon overload, I know—but this bold typographic cover style is not only still recognizable as Portnoy shorthand, but also set up a design scheme for all of Roth’s covers from 1969 to 1975, even as he moved from publisher to publisher.
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar; cover design by Amy Isbey Duevell, 1971
Though I also considered the 1966 design by Shirley Tucker for Faber and Faber (the one with the hypnotic concentric circles), Harper & Row’s first American edition introduced Davida as the unofficial Bell Jar font, which can now be found (along with the rose motif) on quite a number of editions of the book.
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange; cover design by David Pelham, 1972
Most of the covers on this list are first editions, but David Pelham’s paperback edition of A Clockwork Orange came out a full decade after it was first published. It was a tie-in edition to go along with the release of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, but it was a little bit of a curious one: Kubrick forbade Penguin from using any elements from the movie’s poster, designed by Philip Castle, in the new edition, so Penguin’s art director, David Pelham, commissioned an entirely new one. Unfortunately, the designer he contracted turned in a cover Pelham hated—well after the deadline. So Pelham was forced to design his own version, on extremely short notice. Turns out he works well under pressure—the cover has become a much-used and reused shorthand for both book and film. Also, socks.
Peter Benchley, Jaws; cover design by Paul Bacon, 1974
Another example of a design idea so brilliant that it followed the book everywhere. After Bantam’s salesmen rejected the first proposed cover for Benchley’s debut—”a peaceful unsuspecting town [shown] through the bleached jaws of a shark,” which was Benchley’s own vision—editor Tom Congdon and art director Alex Gotfryd settled on a stark typographical jacket. They printed 30,000 copies—but when Bantam’s publisher Oscar Dystel saw it, he balked. The rest, as Ted Morgan explained it in The New York Times Magazine, went like this:
“Without an image,” [Dystel] said, “No one would know what Jaws meant. It could have been a book about dentistry.” He asked Congdon to put a shark on the jacket. Congdon went to see Gotfryd and said: “Dystel wants an illustration. He’s advanced a lot of money. I think we should honor his request.” Gotfryd stifled his exasperation and called artist Paul Bacon, who made a rough layout of the enormous head of a fish.
“Why can’t we have a swimmer as well to have a sense of disaster and a sense of scale?” Gotfryd asked. Bacon came in the next morning with the completed jacket, an open-jawed shark’s head rising toward a swimming woman. Dystel was pleased and wrote Congdon on Dec. 20: “The jacket design for Jaws is much improved. If you sell 100,000 copies we’ll follow you to the letter.”
“We realized that the new version looked like a penis with teeth,” Congdon said, “but was that bad? I placated Alex by buying him a $17 necktie at Paul Stuart.”
Turns out, it wasn’t bad at all.
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon; cover design by R. D. Scudellari, 1977
Anecdotally, this is the book cover I see most often on t-shirts. It’s almost the same color scheme as Portnoy’s Complaint, though I much prefer this custom type treatment, with the stacked os and hidden face.
Joan Didion, The White Album; cover design by Robert Anthony, 1979
The paperback edition of Slouching Towards Bethlehem—you know, the one with the glasses—was a contender here, but the truly iconic cover is this one.
Alice Walker, The Color Purple; cover design by Judith Kazdym Leeds, 1982
Though I actually think The Color Purple has one of the most elegant movie-tie in covers I’ve ever seen, there’s no beating the simplicity and power of the original.
The hat that launched a thousand tattoos (and other imitations). Fun fact: Marcellino is also the designer behind my favorite cover for The Handmaid’s Tale and Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, among others.
John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces; cover design by Charles Rue Woods, 1987
The hat that launched a thousand Halloween costumes. The image is a take, of course, on the black and white first edition original, but this version—and this color scheme—have become much more iconic.
Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park; cover design by Chip Kidd, 1990
Another book cover whose iconic status was cemented when its imagery was used for a very popular movie—and it might not be a coincidence that Kidd’s first instruction, from Sonny Mehta, was to think of Jaws. “I’m like, ‘Okay. You want to make something that’s going to be as iconic for this book as the movie poster ended up being for Jaws,‘” Kidd told Spark & Fire. “And I remember at the time thinking, ‘Right, like that’s ever going to happen. There’s no way in a million years that I am going to ever be able to do that.'” And yet. . .
Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho; cover art by Marshall Arisman, 1991
The rare cover that has remained iconic despite competing (and also very compelling) iconography from the film adaptation.
BONUS: A few more contenders . . .
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse; cover design by Vanessa Bell, 1927