One of the idle pastimes of my past few years, when I had what seemed like all the new releases passing through my hands, was keeping a list of my favorite book covers of the year. Sometimes I made something official out of that, most extravagantly with the Best Covers of the Year contest we ran in 2009, the response to which clarified to me that not everyone agrees about what makes a good book cover.
This year I wasn't so immersed in new books, and though a few--Townie, Debt, Hark! A Vagrant--did express the essence of their art by making me want to buy and/or read the book they represented, my Best Book Covers of 2011 list consists of just one book, the one that kept popping out from the stacks and shelves in my happy bookstore pillaging for gifts over the past few weeks. I didn't actually buy it for anyone, and I'm not sure I care enough about the subject (though I do care a little) to buy its 1000 pages for myself, but it's the one that kept jumping into my hands nevertheless: Spencer Tracy, James Curtis's new biography.
I don't really want to make any too-grand claims for it, since it owes so much to an already-iconic image (the more inscrutable of the two shots of Tracy in Irving Penn's famous series of "corner portraits"). But there's something about the way the designer Carol Devine Carson (the longtime art director at design-friendly Knopf) elevates this striking photograph further with a pure white frame and the small, elegant type of the title and author, which seems to float modestly but intensely below the photograph. The overall effect succeeds in filling this old, stolid star, overshadowed now in our memory by his alliance with Hepburn, with a glamor and mystery of his own, and the book itself seems to levitate out of any stack it sits in.