Judging history books by their covers

By Kevin O’Sullivan

I’ve always been intrigued by what draws us to history texts. Reviews? Dewey? Blind necessity? It’s easy to tick those boxes. But what about the ones that get randomly picked up in Waterstones in the three-for-two, pulled from the shelves of Charlie Byrne’s, Hodges Figgis, Chapters or your local Hughes and Hughes?

By now you’ve digested the dozens of year-end and decade-end lists of best books, the ones that appeared under the tree on Christmas morning or were passed to relatives, friends or significant others in the hope of liberating them from their philistine hands later in the year. Regular readers might even have expected a Pue’s best of the year round up. Monthly recommendations but no year-end or decade-end lists, what’s that all about? (Actually, it’s a collective editorial ethos, an effort to avoid the pointless crush of ranking personal taste and coming out with something so general it appeals only to a narrow section of your readership.)

But in a year full of great history book covers, creating this short list was too good an opportunity to pass up. Here are five of my favourites from 2009, with an explanation why, but feel free to add a comment with yours and I will add them to the gallery.

Simplicity makes Cormac Ó Gráda’s Famine: A Short History the most striking of these covers: a detail from Albrecht Dürer’s 1498 woodcut ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ cast against the emptiness of its white background and the contrasting bold red lettering. The paperback cover of Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or, The Whale works in a similar way, linking subject to imagination with the violent seas, deep green, black and red colouring, and poised whale fluke exposing the fragile relationship between whale and man. Both coax the reader with images that resonate easily with their subject, something Brian Hanley and Scott Millar’s The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party also does well, carrying echoes of murals, marches and also, to this eye, the spirit of prints produced by striking Parisian workers and students in 1968.

The image that adorns Wojciech Tochman’s Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia, by contrast, carries a more subtle message, in tone with the contents of the text. Its theme – survival – is carried in the yellowing walls and the face of a girl too young to remember but also in the tiny photograph of Radovan Karadžić in its misshapen frame, dwarfed by an oversized clock, and the realisation that this is a Bosnian-Serb household rather than the expected Bosnian-Muslim one.

My final choice, the paperback edition of Robert Gildea’s Children of the Revolution, is in the best tradition of survey histories. In the Irish context, for example, we’ve had Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (featuring a painting by Jack B. Yeats), F.S.L. Lyons’s Ireland Since the Famine (Yeats again) and Terence Brown’s Ireland: A Social and Cultural History (you guessed it). It works because it affords a recognisable symbol of an era, one usually untainted by association with a single historical figure, party or caues. In Gildea’s case, the cover also works as a reflection of the style and substance of the text, matching Claude Monet’s Rue Saint-Denis on the 30th June 1878, with its riot of red, white and blue, as an effective symbol of French colour, exuberance, turmoil and organised chaos.

Additional recommendations from our posters:

From Frank:

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6 Responses to “Judging history books by their covers”

  1. Seamus Says:

    The Lost Revolution cover is based upon a People’s Democracy poster from 1969. There’s a link to the original below

  2. Daily Links 12/01/2010 | Irish Publishing News Says:

    […] Judging history books by their covers Nice piece here on Pue’s Occurrences, fast becoming a must read! Read more… […]

  3. Frank Says:

    Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power by Robert E Sullivan has a wonderful cover which makes it almost impossible for a booklover to resist buying it. Click the link below to see why:


    I deliberately used the amazon link as there is a larger size option which allows you to get a better view of the cover. It’s also reviewed by UCD historian Richard Aldous in today’s Irish Times.

  4. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks for the comment Frank and for the recommendation. I’m not sure it’s quite my cup of tea, but I appreciate the effectiveness of the painting in translating the subject of the book.

    Any ideas what the painting is? I haven’t been able to find out who it’s by or when.


  5. Frank Says:

    The portrait dates from 1853 and is the work of Edward Matthew Ward, a friend of the writer. Macaulay, however, according to the notes on the painting which appear on the national portrait gallery website (a larger size option is also available on this site), was not happy with it “complaining not only that he had been poisoned by the smell of paint, but also that the resulting portrait was like a daguerreotype in its minuteness of detail”. Funnily enough, it is this attention to detail that makes the portrait so interesting for me at any rate. Ward’s son Leslie became well known as Spy, the famous Vanity Fair caricaturist.

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