It’s been too long since I wrote about a book. Reviewing books on top of my chaotic life seemed impossible, but this little book I found made me want to participate in this month’s theme of Meta-Reading.
I was doing some retail therapy (aka book shopping) these past few weeks and in one of those visits I found this book by Jhumpa Lahiri. I have never heard of the book but the synopsis had me at hello.
The Clothing of Books is an essay Lahiri wrote for a lecture in Italy. She was asked to write anything about writing and had decided to talk about book jackets/book covers. This peak my interests as some years ago I had a growing interest in re-designing book covers for local books. The personal project was never launched and the idea buried in my memory, however Lahiri’s book awakened my overall interest in book covers.
“A cover elicits certain expectations. It introduces a tone, an attitude, even when these don’t fit the book. I have just compared it to a face, but it is also a mask, something that hides what is behind. It can seduce the reader. It can betray him or her. Like gold tinsel, its glitter can deceive.”
Yes, ideally, we do not judge a book by its cover, but we do. In some ways the cover invites us to open the book, to explore unheard of writers and to risk. I am keen about book covers, enjoying the allure of the ubiquitous covers for Murakami and Austen’s novels. Aware of the uniformity of designs across books and recognizing motifs used by two different authors. Maybe it’s my own general love of the visual art that makes me aware of book covers.
Lahiri begins her story with the idea of clothing. Having been raised in two cultures—Bengali and American—the idea of identity has a strong influence on her. She talks about the struggle in expressing herself through clothing. Dressing like any American teen while her mother insisting on dressing her like most Bengali girls. It is this exteriority—expression of what is inside—that she ruminates over in discussing book covers.
” The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that a cover is a sort of translation, that is, an interpretation of my words in another language—a visual one. It represents the text, but it isn’t part of it.”
The readers discovers, in Lahiri’s essay, that book covers have nothing to do with the author. Once the book, in its final draft, passed on to the publisher in all its naked glory, is then dressed by an artist based on the story and commercial value. Unlike Virginia Woolf’s 1st edition novels whose covers were a combination of her ideas and her sister’s art, Lahiri, like most authors have no real say in the design. She may suggest something based on submitted designs, but she, the author, does not have a final say in the cover of the book.
Her essay explains her own struggle with having no say with the book covers. She wonders at the interpretation of the artists, of the stereotypes her books fall into and the commercial value of a book cover across countries. She speaks of how the words and the book cover are two different artworks bound together The words speak of a story, while a good book cover is a visual artifact separate the beauty of the author’s words. She further explores the idea of the uniform in a library collection versus the individuality of book covers. The uniform provides beauty and unity to all the books in the collection, freeing it from stereotypes, but also removing from it its identity, very much like a school uniform.
“As a writer I often search in vain for this ‘optical echo.’ I took want my covers to reflect the sense and spirit of my books. I would like it if, even once, a cover for one of my books were designed by someone who knew me well, who deeply knew my work, for who it really mattered.”
It begs the reader to ask: Do the covers do justice to the words? Do the words do justice to the cover. I care about book covers. I care about the book covers of author’s I love. I love the minimalist and uniform quality of Vintage’s Murakami books. I love Penguin’s similar colorful minimalism on their classics. When it comes to new authors, I do not try to make sense of the covers—only making sure it is pleasing to the eye. As a reader, I become opinionated of the cover after reading a book, not before. It matters to me that artists are true to the story and do not succumb to stereotypes of Indian motifs for an Indian author or Islamic design for a Muslim author.
Lahiri’s beautiful prose in the discussion of book covers and her own personal musing in the manner accompanies the reader to a journey of considering for a moment the meaning of book covers, beyond just being mere artifacts.