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Putting a Cover Over ‘Lolita’

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita, has intrigued and outraged readers for decades, and over the years book designers have had no picnic coming up with a suitable, but also marketable, book cover.

Part of the problem stems from the public’s misconceptions of the titular character. Often when people think of Lolita, they think of the jailbait seductress with come-hither eyes sucking on her lollipop from Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film adaptation (just a few years ago a British department store got in trouble for naming a girls’ bedroom set after the character), but it’s readers of the novel who realize Lolita‘s titular character is really just a mixed-up, orphaned, 12-year-old girl forced to drop out of middle school, wander the country, and provide sexual companionship for a Frenchman in his 30s whom she is financially (and legally) dependent on.

In 2009, John Bertram, himself a designer, decided to hold a contest (which is being turned into a book) to “re-cover” LolitaCover designs range from subtly disturbing to grossly inappropriate, but one of the things that makes Lolita so difficult to wrap your head around (never mind wrap a cover around) is that to describe the plot is to retell a horror story, but when you actually start to read it, you are blinded by the beauty of the language, and it’s not long until Nabokov begins to corrupt you and make you laugh at the absurd, almost Looney Tunes like, pursuits of the narrator, Humbert Humbert. In the end you start to question your own morality when you begin to feel bad for him.

Accurately capturing the contents of this book is a careful balancing act, but I think the above cover, designed by Jamie Keenan, provides perfect representation of the text: At first glance, it is elegant and beautifully crafted, but after a moment’s study you see that it is at the same time disturbing and, frankly, kind of hilarious.