The Ultimate Album Cover Album, Roger Dean and David Howells (Prentice Hall: $19.95). Lured either by the dearth of lucrative jobs in visual art or by the challenge of creating evocative images to match the emotional power of music, many of today's best artists design album covers. Unfortunately, the sparse text accompanying this collection of rock and jazz jackets is written for artists on the inside groove, focusing too much on technical design to truly interest fans and art connoisseurs. Still, the cover designs themselves, while not exactly high art, are fascinating for what they reveal about dreams, pretensions and anxieties during different periods in pop culture. Santana's 1970 album is blaringly psychedelic, for instance, reflecting the heart of the hallucinogenic 1960s; their 1976 cover, still bright but more focused and sleek, reflects a more peaceful, though still surreal, Eden.
In the 1980s, computer-age confusion is mirrored on the cover of Brian Eno and David Byrne's "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," which shows square human forms blurred by a TV screen. Covers that consciously try to be revelatory, on the other hand, are often hard to decipher. One album, for example, shows a young teen-age girl looking quizzically at a space-age plane; innocence meets war, some of us might conclude. But the artists say it represents "the tree of life" confronting knowledge. While this "album" would have benefited from interviews with record designers (Why have women been so readily exploited on the covers?), it will be appreciated by culture-watchers who can bring historical perspective to this evocative, relatively new form of art.
Our Common Future: The World Commission on Environment and Development (Oxford: $9.95). This jarring United Nations report inevitably will be ignored by many of the leaders with the power to make a difference. None of these leaders, however, can deny the gravity of the problems it addresses: Since the commission first met in October, 1984, the drought-triggered crisis in Africa peaked, killing perhaps a million people; a leak from a pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, killed over 2,000 people and blinded and injured over 200,000 more; the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion sent nuclear fallout across Europe; and an estimated 60 million people died of diseases related to unsafe drinking water and malnutrition (most of the victims were children). What will be criticized, unfortunately, is this report's assumption that the First World has a solemn obligation toward the Third.
The West has faced up to Bhopal, and the East to Chernobyl, of course, but our planet's long-term livelihood only will be assured if leaders of industrially advanced cultures recall the astronaut's pictures of the delicate Earth, perceive our common future and begin emphasizing planning over profit, global interdependence and shared obligation over national interest. This is a fine polemic in favor of this holistic approach, emphasizing past accomplishments and pointing the way to possible future improvements in international economy, population, food security, industry, species and ecosystems and energy. A quibble: The editors might have reached American conservatives more effectively by pointing out that one of the best ways to protect democracy is to discourage developing countries from equating capitalism with exploitation.
The American Idea of Success, Richard M. Huber (Pushcart Press: $19.95). It's paradoxical, but the best way to overview a society is to begin by focusing narrowly on one of its traits. Studies that survey vast terrain from the start invariably end up wandering without direction or imposing an artificial typology on the environment. The trick, of course, is to find a particularly telling trait, as Richard Huber has done in this truly exceptional book, first released (and overlooked, says the publisher) in 1971. Our conviction that the pursuit of salary and celebrity will bring happiness has given our country a restless energy unique in the Western world. But we've paid a price for our narrow, albeit productive quest, Huber observes: "Success increases feelings of guilt and humiliation in failure, intensifying forces for unhappiness, and encouraging a vulgar grasping for status as a testimony to one's worth."