Why Album Art?

Thought of the moment: I don’t think I’ve ever paid any real attention to album covers.

Even as a kid, when all we had was LPs, I don’t recall ever caring what was on them. And there are only a couple albums whose covers I can summon to mind right now (some from childhood, some more recent). I’ve done the “just listening to an album” thing–not doing anything else, just listening. But it never occurred to me to have a visual component to that activity.

I just sorta realized that the experience I’ve heard lots of other music fans describe–of examining the album cover/liner in detail while listening to a new album–is not something I’ve ever done. In fact, if I really want to listen, it’s in the dark. This is probably why the emphasis on “cover art” in iTunes (and elsewhere) has never been helpful for me. Even before I started buying music digitally, before album art went from a square foot to less than a quarter of that, I didn’t pay any attention to the covers of my albums.

For me, album art has always been a useful-but-secondary bit of information. It’s decoration, not a mnemonic. I keep my music in alphabetical order, and I find an album by scanning the titles, not by looking for a familiar image. (It doesn’t help that often the color firmly lodged in my mind as associated with an album is not the color that’s on the spine of the CD case–and sometimes not actually a significant color on the cover, either.)

Thinking more about this, I *do* pay attention to book covers and cover art. I can quickly pick books out on my shelves based just on their spines, and I can describe the covers of favorite books. In fact, I couldn’t find a book that I’d misplaced on my shelves for months, despite doing book-by-book visual searches of the shelves multiple times, because I was looking for the green of the cover and didn’t realize the spine was white. Somehow I simply skipped right over it, mentally, without ever reading its (very clear) title.

With CDs (and LPs, and cassettes) I read the title to find it, and then I might admire the artwork. With books I use some combo of reading the title and recognizing the art to locate a book. Odd.

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If you treat it as non-fiction, does that make it so?

Rob Heinsoo relates an entertaining anecdote about classifying D&D books, and, I gotta say, it rings true. There are two sorts of books that I never know where they’ll be in the book store, and often have to resort to asking someone: RPG books, and Le Guin’s non-fiction. The former i’ve seen in “games,” “comics,” “fantasy,” “scifi/fantasy,” and occasionally in their own section. And, I suppose, given the fact that they are instruction manuals more than they are narratives, saying “they’re not fiction, so they must be non-fiction” isn’t the most ridiculous decision I’ve seen. Even sorta makes sense–if predicated on a sorta narrow definition of “fiction”. But, I gotta admit, “self help” definitely takes the cake for absurd classification.

As for Le Guin’s non-fiction works, particularly her books of essays, I’ve found them in Women’s Studies, Lit Crit, Memoirs, and filed with her [adult] fiction in Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Fantasy/Science Fiction. (I’ve also found her young-adult and children’s stories filed with her adult SF/fantasy works, but that seems rather less strange, given the fact that they all seem to have a fantastical element, at the least.)