The Clothing of Books
Before I was really obsessed with records I was obsessed with record covers. When I was a little tyke my dad owned his own store front business in a strip mall. On one side of his shop was a video store and on the other was a record store. I would thumb through records for hours looking at the covers. I fell in love with Slayer and Black Flag before I had ever heard them. The covers of those records were scary and mortifying, and to my ten-year old mind, totally awesome. By the time I was old enough to make my own way to the record stores I immediately bought and fell in love with these tapes. The idiom of never judging a book by its cover has rarely, if ever, sat well with me.
But reading this essay by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri has turned some screws in that practice. The art of the cover is an interesting one, and for books it’s a complicated one. Most records they have the same cover for life. But books, they change covers over time and, if you are so lucky to be published in multiple languages, change with countries and cultures.
Lahiri talks about the complex relationship we have with book covers, observing the phenomenon from both a bibliophile and an author. As an author the cover is a tumultuous aspect of the publishing process. After all it is a design made of someone else’s imagination and not necessarily connected to the words within. The book cover in modern America is made to entice readers, to compete on shelves and table tops and to entice buyers with blurbs from famous people we’re supposed to trust. The art of the cover in the United States is sadly nothing more than an advertisement these days. Just another product announcement in an over crowded market place (says the writer who is working on and hoping to get his first novel published).
However, in some cases, we do revere our novelists. Lahiri writes about the Penguin Classics with their classic looking, but often drab paintings (my description) countered with a black band at the bottom. They stick out like sore thumbs and they are designed to tell us that this book, cloaked as such, is cannon of the art of the English language. These covers are meant to insinuate that this is not just a book to read, but to know.
As an author, Lahiri has an even more tumultuous relationship with covers. Like any of us writers she wants the books she writes to be loved, to be cared for, to entice the magic we hope that they do. She understands the power of the cover, the readers relationship to the covers of their favorite books, even if they are horrible. And horrible they often are. So even when the outside misrepresents what is within, still we cling to our books.
So all this talk about book covers and what they convey, what is this really about? We could speculate that this is all just a metaphor for people and how we look and judge each other. We could argue that all this talk about books and how we dress them to either conform or stand out is just talk about ourselves. We could even speculate that the adage of yore we cling to be open to each other is more complicated than the simple words suggest.
Books do feel like people sometimes. They have personalities and lives of their own that seem to live both beyond their pages and our purview. So while it is unfortunate that we try to frame their personalities with these external images, at the same time we cannot contain them in our image. Whatever we want to make of the books we read, publish, collect and cherish, it is to be sure they make much more of us.