COVER art is the reason I collect printed books.
When I had eyes only for Nancy Drew mysteries, I would cross the field in campus whenever I spotted a matte-yellow spine popping out in a sea of blue-and-white uniforms.
Myopic, I passed back and forth to check the title of the book held by a stranger. This was long before Grosset & Dunlap published the neon-yellow “flashlight” editions.
Appearing in the 1980s’ editions, the flashlight did not thrill me as much as the magnifying glass Nancy peered through in the vintage copies I inherited from my mother and the brand-new ones she treated me to during trips to Paul’s Bookstore at Sanciangko St., where odor of ordure dropping from the horses drawing the occasional tartanilla mingled with the smell of books as soon as we opened the door.
Driven by the anemic fiction collection in my college library, I became a regular at the Music House, a downtown Mecca for secondhand finds. Book spines cued me as I shuffled piles of pocketbooks for that serendipitous find.
When I wanted to be closeted with a book in mint condition, I went to the USIS Library in Jones Ave. Everything here was hushed, from readers lost like acolytes deep in their prayers to the squeak-free caps placed under the chair feet. Only the cellophane covers of the hardbound books, with their snap and crackle, faintly subverted this order.
The USIS books rarely kept on their dust jackets with the illustrations. Missing the paperbacks with their crass and loud covers marketed for the masses, I returned to the Music House, which had these in galore, along with a noisome creek, plumes of vehicle exhaust, and a corner bakery that served hot Spanish bread with craters of sweet filling to sustain hours of book excavating.
Because the Music House accepted trade-ins of old books for new ones, I experimented with genres and tasted authors on a student’s budget. I detoured to science fiction fantasy (SFF) novels for their covers of pure kitsch; I stayed for SFF’s unmatched tales of invention and presentiment.
I brought home, with the Music House’s trademark price handwritten in pencil (“8L”), the 1975 edition by Berkley Books of Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. The story of a fictional desert planet warring over a rare spice was rejected 23 times before it was published in 1965 by Chilton Books, known for printing car manuals.
For the 1975 cover, Vincent Di Fate drew a pillar of rock that could be a monstrous sandworm guarding the coveted resource from humans. Jim Tierney’s treacherously undulant cover art in the 2010 Ace edition is aptly ambiguous for our time.
Fiction is not stranger than life. Oracular, book covers are the writings on the wall.