Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Clothing of Books

Title:  The Clothing of Books
Author:  Jhumpa Lahiri
Publication Information:  Vintage. 2016. 80 pages.
ISBN:  0525432752 / 978-0525432753

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In the house of my father's family in Calcutta, which I visited as a child, I would watch my cousins getting dressed in the mornings."

Favorite Quote:  "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."

Don't judge a book by its cover. How often do we hear that idiom applied to so many different aspects of life? This book brings that idea back to an actual book. The main idea - Don't judge a book by its cover as the author often has nothing to do with the design of the cover. The cover represents an artist's interpretation of the author's words. In that sense, to the author, it can represent understanding, acknowledgement, or criticism of his or her work.

I understand and agree with the idea of the book. As an avid reader, a lover of books, and an amateur photographer, I love the connection between words and visual images. So, when I read that Jhumpa Lahiri explores that connection in this book, I was intrigued. I have never really considered a book cover from the author's perspective and looked forward to learning more. Having read it, I am not sure what to make of this book itself. 

First of all, this is not quite a book. At only 80 pages, it is a very slim volume. In the afterword, the author herself states that "I wrote this essay..." I could see it as an essay and am not sure how it evolves into publication as a book. The amount of content is better suited to a short essay format. I expected more - maybe input from other authors, maybe some information on cover design, and maybe some visual images analyzed for their connections to the written word. This book is none of that; it is a philosophical statement that repeats several times during the book - the book is not its cover, and the cover is not its book.

Second, the book to me has a negative tone. The book puts forth the idea that the author has very little (no?) control over a book jacket, but then speaks about her conversations with cover designers about the covers of her own books. The book has several references to her dislike of certain book covers - "ugly covers" and "one that pains me." Finally, "there is a certain awful cover for one of my books that elicits in me an almost violent response. Every time I am asked to autograph that edition, I feel the impulse to rip the cover off the book." The issue is that the negative comments are not backed up with why. Why do some covers appeal and some don't? What determines a reaction to a cover? That cover, too, is someone's work. If this book is to be a personal one, then I would hope to understand her reasons.

Third, the book skirts certain issues that would be fascinating to learn about. A few times, the book mentions different covers for different editions and different language printings. How do cover designs incorporate cultural nuances? The book also skirts the topic of the changing role of book covers in a digital world. Does our reaction differ based on the medium? Does the presentation medium drive the design? Again, this book is a personal essay, and unfortunately does not get into the substance of these topics.

Had I read this as an essay in a magazine, I would have appreciated the sentiment. In a book format, I expect more. Interestingly, it is unfortunate that I am not fond of the cover of this book. Ironic in a book about book covers, don't you think?

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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