28 March 2007

22 covered


as the cliche goes, you aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover. i know this isn't strictly a literary moral. it has deeper meanings. it's trying to say that we aren't supposed to judge our fellow humanity for things like wearing caftans and carrying amulets. we should get to know them and understand why they wear caftans and carry amulets and then we can judge them at our leisure.

but to take the cliche literally, what the hell are we supposed to judge a book by if not its cover?

recently, i've been dabbling in novels. not heavily and not with any intent of defecting to fiction (don't get your hopes up, pirate), but just poking my nose here or there as a flippant distraction as i biographically wind my way through the many mistresses of george iv. and i've come to notice that i always judge a novel by its cover.

in biography- because biography is most often about a single character- the cover is a fairly straightforward thing. it involves a picture of the biographical subject. since there are inordinately more biographies of beautiful people (the uglies seem to very seldom escape the footnotes), this picture is usually quite lovely. if it's a woman, then she's in soft-focus and fluffy-haired and possibly accompanied by a small, pissed-off dog. if a man, he's stern, and in a becoming power pose and tight pants.

the plot of a biography is captured not so much in the cover as in the title, which is often a breathless variation on this theme: my lady scandalous: the many scandalous lives of the scandalous mary robinson: the secret, the sex slave, the scandals! or, if a man: the scandalous sex prince: the many scandalous lives of the scandalous king george iv: the secret marriage & the seductions! that's biography.

but what about fiction? its titles err of the side of brevity and the allures of its covers need to be immediately accessible. we do not wander into the fiction aisle and grab the first plain jane penguin edition that catches our eye. nay! we want cool colors! provocative pictures! gold stickers! or maybe this is just me and my acute aesthetic attraction to all things bright.

wives & daughters entered my life because it was hot pink. it was written by elizabeth gaskell and that had a teeny tiny something to do with my forking over the $7.98, but mostly i coveted the hot pink. it would be a welcome burst of life alongside the lineup of dark and dreary austen maroons. a 678-page fragment of a novel, wives & daughters is one of the best things i've read this year. and i read it only because it looked like it'd been dunked in a bucket of flamingo dream.

equally superficial attractions drew me to bel canto. it first caught my eye years ago, but i nabbed it at the white elephant for two reasons- 1) it cost 50 cents, and 2) it's cover boasted that it had won the orange prize. like most fiction, bel canto concluded in a manner perfectly calculated to exceedingly frustrate me, but i enjoyed it nonetheless. it's a lyrical little novel about a south american dinner party taken hostage by terrorists- and i picked it up solely because it was cheap and had won a prize named after a fruit.

the grim reality is that we can never read all the books we want to read. thus, we must pick and choose. i'm sure i'm missing a whole heap of glories simply because an art director somewhere out there has a fondness for beige and his books are winning boring normal awards named for people rather than produce. but i'm okay with that. we can't read all the books we should read, so why not read the 50 cent oranges instead?

22 comments:

Les Savy Ferd said...

there is something curious afoot. Whilst you've been 'dabbling' in the fiction I've been reading the non. how very bizarro.

But i'm with you 100% on the judge a book by its cover deal. 2 years ago I was hemming and hawing over which novel to read when i came across a slim gem of a book by Marilynne Robinson called 'Housekeeping.' It came highly recommended, my boss at the time, who was a terrible boss by the way but was/is an excellent judge of literary worth, praised it highly.

But the cover. oh what a cover. it might be my favorite novel cover of all time. And while I read it 2 years ago, well before Robinson won the Pulitzer for her latest novel, Gilead, written an insanely long time after 'Housekeeping' (something like 15-20 years), i'm sure the new copies of Housekeeping have your preferred 'winner of the pulitzer prize' gold stickers on them.

and it didn't hurt that the book itself was terrific, that I've sold the shit out of it here at work and have recommended it to everyone, even my jocky-est friends (its largely about women you see).

anyhow, thought i'd chime in.

*ding*

oline said...

it's not just us, pirate. bombsy's dabbling in the fic too. indubitably bizarro.

as an aside, i'm glad there are others who share an aversion to movie tie-in editions. judging a book by its cover is one thing but buying a book whose cover screams i am only reading this book because i saw the movie first is simply gauche.

(did i just judge the covers of those who don't care enough about their covers to buy a book with the right cover?)

Unknown said...

i've taught bel canto twice now. a little book to hold in your hands and cherish. patchett is someone i could run away with tomorrow.

oline said...

this is why i wish i were in your classes. and why i'm glad it won the orange prize- because who knows how long it would've taken me to find such a little gem.

Les Savy Ferd said...

read 'housekeeping', you'll love it just as much, I promise!

Meggie said...

Caro: This from the daughter of a librarian--it is *very* wrong to judge a book by the cover. That being said, I will intentionally buy chick lit novels with better covers than chick lit novels with crap covers. I bought the "prettier" edition of "Anna Karenina".

Side note: I also refuse to buy "movie edition" books.

oline said...

don't worry, pirate. it was added to the list of books to get first thing.

meggie, i find that "feminine literature" is one of the most cover judgeable genres in existence. and prettier editions always win.

Les Savy Ferd said...

is the edition of anna k you speak of the one with the lady clasping flowers betwixt her knees? Thats the one I am getting through right now, the one oprah had in her book club, and has (what I'm told is) a superior translation by pevear and volokohnsky(sp?).

Clark MF Price said...

The last time I read a book, I got raped.

oline said...

way to kill the convo, price!

since we're comparing AKs, mine is the airmont books 1966 pocket (um...no) paperback, its loose leaves bound by two trusty rubber bands.

Meggie said...

My Anna Karenina is unfortunately the Oprah edition which means everyone thinks I'm reading it because of Oprah which I hate.

Caro: Still loving the Blushing Pimp. Still have my copy from 9th grade English. Bonus: Army Dude also enjoys it.

oline said...

ooooh. i loved the blushing pimp!

Linda said...

sigh. AK. mine was heavy with a big ass.

Meggie said...

Isn't the Blushing Pimp just the classic version of modern day chick lit? It all started with the Blushing Pimp. Think about it and we'll discuss later. *laughs*

Clark MF Price said...

Sorry. I felt inclined to quote Yellowbeard.

Osutein said...

I've always had a weird fascination with book covers, and with why authors pick certain titles, or why titles are changed by editors, and epigrams, and the blurb on the back. In each case, with a single book you have various different people (the author, editor, designer, etc) trying to sum up the essence of a story in a glance. That's what I find some interesting about judging a book by its coer, what you see is what these people thought was most compelling, or most representative, about this certain story (which is why I always make the distinction that a book is a physical object while a novel or story or biography is the content inside the book).

I have a weird habit of browsing through the Classics and comparing their cover-paintings, blurbs etc to see how different editions see, and try to sell, the same story. Some are easy, "Moby Dick" always has a whaling scene. But the sheer variety for "Wuthering Heights" speaks to its weirdness as a story, how protean it is. We can't really judge a book by its cover, but I think you can sometimes judge a story by its books.

oline said...

well played, sensei.

in a mildly derivative hobby, i enjoy browsing the novels and finding covers that feature paintings of people about whom i've read biographies. it's like finding old friends among the riffraff.

Les Savy Ferd said...

not so fast with your 'moby dick is easy' comments, sensei. That just so happens to be my favorite novel of all-time (mostly because i'd argue it has the seeds to all other novels inside it... someplace) and I happen to be a cover-phile myself and I'm not going to let you get off so easy.

I happened to stumble on two editions of MD which (in my mind) beautifully contradict you. On one you get a reflective glossy black on dull black image of Queequeg's facial tattoos (which was downright creepy and cool) and on another, the stoic nortwestern press newberry edition you get nothing but a blank baby blue cover and the title.

So a book about a murderous white whale (like its really a whale, pffft) does not necessarily need a whaling cover. and I've overshot my point long ago. I'll just recede into the musty shadows of my melville fanboy-dom...

Osutein said...

Actually, I agree with you, dread pirate. What I meant (but didn't convey very well) was that Moby Dick *shouldn't* be easy, but publishers seem to take the easy route with it and just say, "ah, slap a whale on there." I'm glad to hear there are alternatives (especially the tattoo one, that sounds awesome). I would even venture to say that the guy who did the tattoo design probably had great appreciation for the book's organic, mysterious nature.

I have to say, I do wonder if one of the reasons why mainstream Americans regard literature (which is chock full of sex, violence, and depravity) as "boring" is because most literature is hidden behind some boring cover, either a sepia-toned photograph or a bland 19th century portrait of bored aristocrats (a la the Gaskell cover above), giving literature a permanently dated look.

Incidentally, my new fav cover is a War and Peace edition featuring an imprint of a precariously swinging chandelier. 1400 pages well conveyed in a single image. Bravo.

Les Savy Ferd said...

two other covers I've seen done in interesting ways (but for opposing reasons) are kafka's metamorphosis and shelley's frankenstein. The former author explicitly stated that he never wanted gregor as bug or any bug at all on his cover, though this declaration goes largely unheeded nowadays. So what do you put on the cover then?

And Franky's had more covers than any book ever, at least that i can think of. and again, rarely does the creature make an appearance. My personal fave is the Norton critical edition which features a painting of dangerous looking shards of snow and ice. The islands used it as the cover of their last album, too.

oline said...

it's interesting how, in a very small way, this aligns with the concept of film remakes. but whereas you have to rewrite and reshoot a film, with a book you can visually recast the story's themes and emphasis and even alter the reader's perception of the characters simply by swapping a photograph and without rewriting a single word.

my copy of AK features a russian woman hurrying through snow drifts into a train station. the oprah version is something like a woman holding some lilacs between her knees. the first implies rushing towards one's (tragic) destiny, the second implies one has taken an elegiac break in the pursuit of one's (tragic) destiny and pursued a gardening interlude instead.

same story, different pictures, entirely different book.

Osutein said...

Well said Oline. It'd be interesting to conduct a pyshcological experiment and see how much book covers alter people's perceptions of a book's themes or even plot... both books whose most basic plot is well known (like Moby Dick) or probably not well known (like Gaskell's book up there). There probably has been. Considering how popular English and psychology are as majors amongst the unemployable class, it seems inevitable.