While it's said that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, the cover is the first thing a potential reader/customer sees, designed to get their attention and encourage them to make a purchase.  This is probably even more true for a magazine like Playboy, which relies heavily on the promise of beautiful, naked women to attract readers.  Playboy's Greatest Covers, by Damon Brown, traces the history of the magazine through its front covers, discussing along the way the trends of the covers as well as the history of the time.
Following an introduction by Pamela Anderson (who has appeared on more Playboy covers than anyone else), Playboy's Greatest Covers jumps into its combination of photograph and history lessons.  This coffee-table book is divided into five sections: 1953-1962, 1963-1969, 1970-1979, 1980-1991, and 1992-present.  Each section begins with a summary of the years (from the seriousness of the 1970s ("Playboy couldn't be just about drinks, sex, and kicks anymore.  The newly attempted gravitas is shown on both the cover and the table of contents") to the 1980s (with a far greater emphasis on Hollywood stars).  Each chapter has a topic (from "Legs" to different celebrities (male and female) to jazzercise), with the cover or covers reflecting that topic; there are frequent outtake photos shown as well.
Playboy's Greatest Covers does a good job of living up to its title.  While this is a far-from-comprehensive collection of all the magazine's covers, this book provides not just a look at the covers but what went into them, from the first black-and-white cover proclaiming "Marilyn Monroe Nude!" to the current Girls Next Door.  Brown also discusses the techniques and themes of the issues, from the early anthromorphic rabbit who appeared quite a lot in the early years, to the near-omnipresence of the Playboy logo, appearing everywhere from small images in the background to the poses of the models.
As for the writing, Brown does a solid job.  He does a terrific job of linking the history of the times with the photos we see (from the early years: "Here's Playboy's secret: It isn't really about sex, but about being a man of the world"), as well as providing trivia (the magazine was almost called Stag Party; the cover with the first African-American model -- shown below -- was revolutionary in its day and was chosen by the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2005 as one of the 40 most important magazine covers of the past 40 years).
However, Brown's role is more of a cororate tour guide than a critic or objective analyst.  He tells us about the times and the photos from the Playboy perspective, in a way that's universally positive to the magazine.  (For example, when discussing the Playboy Clubs he stresses how popular they were and how no competitors could measure up; but their closing is quickly mentioned without any look at why they failed.)  Sometimes this perspective can come across as bragging (after the last issue with staples, Brown comments, "Playboy would now be 'perfect bound,' which would make it easier for collectors to find and organize their Playboys as if they were an encyclopedia of sex, history, and culture, as indeed they are") or without context (as when using body-paint on naked models is praised, without mentioning that magazines like Vanity Fair and Sports Illustrated had been doing this first).
Still, Playboy's Greatest Covers works pretty well as a chronological, sociological, and mostly nudity-free trip through the history of what may be America's most famous men's magazine.  The photos are high quality and the outtakes are interesting; the writing is well done, if uncritical; and the overall result is a good look at how the magazine evolved and changed with the times.  And if you're embarrassed to have this book on display, you can always repeat the large quote on the back cover: "I only read it for the articles."
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James

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