The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

I stumbled on The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri (Goodreads rating: 4 of 5 stars) at the library and read it in one sitting.  A lecture turned book(let), it was nevertheless interesting to read an author’s thoughts on book covers and to ruminate on their role, impact, etc.  It is not something the average reader probably thinks a lot about even as it may play a large role in the books they buy and read.  Book covers have an impact in ways obvious and less so.  There are elements that we consciously look for and those we don’t think about or may not even be aware of.

There are informational elements like reading jackets for basic plot or subject outline, for blurbs and descriptions from authors we may know, to know which book in a series this one might be, etc.  There are also graphical elements that catch our eye; maybe a particular style or artist we like or just the design and feel of a book may speak to us.  Covers send signals about books in ways that we might not pick up on too.  A particular style may signal science fiction or mystery or romance and this signal may or may not comport with the actual words that lie within. We may be drawn to books for reason we can’t really articulate.

Few would deny, however, that covers play an important role in the books we buy and read.  Which is why I imagine they are so problematic for authors.  Having put their heart and soul into the text they must then hand over something so critical in the ultimate success of that text to someone else.  Lahiri describes how frustrating and disheartening she finds this process.  In a related way she discusses the role of classics, or those books allowed to be positioned as such, by inclusion in a publishing series that removes this aspect; such as the Library of America, the Modern Library or Everyman’s Library series.  Apparently in Europe these type of editorial series more often include contemporary authors and aren’t reserved for those deemed “classics.”

I will admit that I am influenced quite a bit by book covers; in ways both graphic and informational (and how the two seem to connect or work together).  But I am also drawn to collections of classics and own quite a few of the above mentioned series.  Interestingly enough, I find these type of series, with their elegance and quality, appealing textually and aesthetically.  And not surprisingly, Lahiri notes that inclusion in these types of series is seen as an award or prize in itself; to be included means the work is worth this sort of attention and quality.

There is a tension involved in the way that books are packaged and sold that can’t really be resolved.  In some ways, we want the text to stand on its own; the words to have the meaning and to be judge on their own.  And yet it is not so easy to separate books from their covers; to disconnect the words from the package.  For many, the cover of a particular edition of a favorite book is part of the memory and experience of that book; the words are irreparably connected to the cover and vice versa.  And it is a basic aspect of marketing that in a world flooded with books all the tools of the trade will be brought to bear in causing readers and buyers to pick a particular book from that flood.  We need covers to differentiate and help curate books for us to prevent us from being overwhelmed with choices.

As the above might indicate, if anything Lahiri could have written much, much more on this fascinating topic.  If you are looking for a deep dive on the topic, this book is probably not for you.  But if you enjoy a well written but brief rumination on the topic from an author then you will enjoy it for what it is methinks.  I did.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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