Books & Covers

It had to be Twitter – I monitor it for ‘research’ purposes – which planted a nagging question in my mind the other day. The sort of question you keep thinking about for days after: and that’s exactly what I’m doing now, days after. Best not to name names, perhaps, but the names of the people involved escape me anyway.

This is how it happened. Someone, and it could have been an organisation or body, tweeted the old question about judging a book by its cover. In this case the question was more pointed: “Do you judge a book by its cover?” And I think I answered reflexively “no”, to myself, and then read the next tweet, which could have been about democracy in the Ukraine or it could, let’s be honest, have been a cute picture of a cat. No is supposed to be the answer. We generally don’t admit to being superficial when considering what we look for in a partner and the same goes for books. Or so I thought. There have been very plain and actually some quite ugly books I’ve enjoyed reading very much and there must have been examples of beautifully designed books which weren’t at all satisfying to devote myself to. It’s hard to remember, to be honest.

And this is the point. While the question was summarily dismissed from my mind, another person answered the question and this answer appeared in my Twitter feed and that put the whole topic back into my consciousness. This person said that yes the cover did determine which books he bought, and he broke down different features of an unknown book into how important they were in judging a book. He may have said that the cover was 30% responsible for a purchase. It must be said that this response earned a brief snort of derision from me – perhaps a figurative snort, for it was a silent reaction which took place in my head – and this response to the question was likewise dismissed.

But asking the question in different words made me really think and something occurred to me. If the question was “Do you ever buy a book when you know nothing about the author or the book except what is obvious from picking the thing up (or glancing at it online)?” then I would have to say no. No, I’m not sure that I have ever walked into a book shop and bought a book by an author I haven’t heard of. Not since I was a little boy. When we were little and we used to go to the library at school I would often end up borrowing a book I knew nothing about purely because the cover seemed interesting. Voyage of the Dawntreader, by CS Lewis, was one such example of borrowing. But I must have heard of CS Lewis somewhere and The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe was probably nearby, and I would have heard of that, so that would have influenced my decision. In any case, I didn’t read much of it as I was too young or too lazy or something. At school I would mostly borrow non-fiction books and with non-fiction you do often have to make judgements about the merit of a book without a great deal of evidence. Many people can write about Tsar Nicholas II and his family, for example, and you might not have heard of all of the authors on this subject, but if this is a subject which interests you then you know you are already on reasonably safe ground. And that’s when you start looking at the features of a book which can indicate quality, but which only really apply to a non-fiction book: an index is a good thing and a bad thing to be missing, a bibliography is good, photos indicate money has been spent producing the thing, quality binding is some indication of overall quality, and there are other less-tangible things like the feel, the paper’s texture, whether the thing seems scholarly, and yes, the cover design. So there must have been some books chosen partly on their covers, but also because of subject matter. In fact recently I bought books about the Marquis de Sade and Stalin because of their authors, who I knew (one better than the other), and because of subject, and footnotes, bibliography and index.

But the original question was about fiction. It was implied, I think. And the answer to that question would have to be that I cannot remember in any circumstances buying a fiction book by an unknown author with a title I also knew nothing about. Book reviews are a constant source of reading material for me, so I have a fair idea of the new books at any time, but it’s also true that I don’t read much that is contemporary, so it’s perhaps a safe thing to remain within the boundaries of the known and established writers from the past. Chuck Palahniuk books were lent to me to read and I liked them and that’s how I knew about Chuck, and All The Pretty Horses was on Laetitia’s shelf and the film was familiar (even though I hadn’t seen it), so I started that book and loved it, but I think mostly, having read so much about authors I read people I know and I often know the name of the book too (but not always) before trying it.

Is this another example of missing out or is it other people who condemn themselves to disappointment. A few years ago some work colleagues talked about going to see the film Transformers, which I have to say sounded like utter crap to me. They agreed after they had both seen it that the special effects were good – aliens and explosions and so on – but the story wasn’t very good and at least half of the reason for making the film seemed to be to include sequences of Megan Fox wearing a tank top and running, in slow motion. Which is fine. It sounded like that kind of film to me. This wasn’t a surprise, and I felt that I had identified what type of cinematic experience it would be and had correctly made the judgement that it would be no loss whatsoever to not ever watch this movie. But in a few weeks these guys were talking about something else, something with car chases and crashes, and they were satisfied with that up to a point as well, although it left a little bit to be desired too. The point here is not that these colleagues had no idea what they were in for or knew nothing of the directors’ work or the genre of the film they were going to see – the point is that they were willing to take a chance with something which could turn out to be profoundly unsatisfying (or a little bit shit), because there was a modest chance that it might be very good. In comparison, I’m more likely to throw myself into a story (book/film) which I know a little bit (or a lot) about and have decided that it will be my kind of thing.

Is that profound or obvious? Perhaps the latter. It is clearly not good to have narrow horizons, so I shall try to make mine broad at the same time as staying as informed as I can.

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Published in: on January 23, 2014 at 7:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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