Tuesday, 21 February 2012

How to judge a book without a cover?

I got to thinking of this after meeting up with a friend this weekend, who was enthusing over her Kindle and how great it was that she could carry around so many books at once; I, who have been resisting Kindles with decreasing tenacity since they came onto the market, lamely replied, 'But I like the covers on proper books!', and gestured at the copy of 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' by Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austen) that was in front of me. It was a pretty rubbish argument as apparently you still get cover images on Kindles, but it did get me thinking... As the interest in vitual literature increases, does the book cover become negligible?

We've all been taught since we were little, 'not to judge a book by it's cover', that homely metaphor to not judge on appearances; and yet, as the number of books available to us increases in mind-boggling numbers every day, I find myself relying heavily on the cover to give me my first indication of if it's a book for me or not; after all, as a very contradictory argument, first appearances count. Of course, some pieces of literature are so famous that having a cover for them is already a bit pointless, as their reputations precede them; pieces by Shakespeare, for example, or Chaucer, or 'Dracula' by Bram Stoker. Simply put, if you're going to have a library full of many leather-bound books (stay classy, Ron Burgundy), they're either going to be super-special special editions, ones you've bound yourself or the expensive kind you get in second-hand bookshops. For those of us who have to make do with our local Waterstones or library, covers are still a large part of the selection process, and when you've got literally thousands of books waiting for you to purchase them, you need a quick glance at the cover before you take the extra step of reading the blurb. I for one tend to breeze past any section that has covers showing any of the following:
  • Illustrated women with really tiny dogs
  • Illustrated women gazing out at the Manhattan/Parisian/London skyline
  • Illustrated women holding cupcakes
  • Illustrated women with lots of shopping bags and, perhaps, a pram and a tiny dog, wearing impossible stilletto heels
  • Brawny men cradling swooning women on the deck of a pirate ship/a beach/a stormy cliff.
There is a bit of a theme there. But that's because, whilst I do enjoy a bit of chick-lit from time to time (one of my guiltiest pleasures is a free copy of 'I Heart New York' by Lindsey Kelk that I got with Cosmo once, a novel as shallow as it's title and yet I. CAN'T. GIVE. IT. UP), I generally don't read chick-lit anymore, so being able to see the distinctive covers from a distance - usually in sickly shades of baby pink, sky blue and mint green - allows me to steer well clear, and go for something with, I don't know, a man in a helmet, or a tiger, or a multi-coloured car, or a something like that. It allows me to be more selective in my choice of literature, something I could've done with when, as a naive thriteen year old, I went against my instincts, ignored the kind-of freaky cover of 'American Pyscho' by Bret Easton Ellis, bought it anyway and subsequently didn't sleep for a week, I was so disturbed by what I had read.

This may be harsh to the chick-lit titles, but let's hold on a minute here. If you're shopping for clothes, you don't go into the shop blindfolded and randomly pick out whatever your hand falls on; you carefully assess what styles you like, narrow that down to what styles suit you, and then narrow that down to what you can afford. It's similar with books; you're looking for something to spend your time with, and you don't want to get it wrong. Obviously the blurb will give you the overview you need to judge if the book is for you, but then you can't read the blurb of every book in the store; you use the cover to find one that captures your imagination.

 I for one have resisted the Kindles for this long on the basis that I prefer the feel of a proper book; of pages, the spine, the way my fingers sometimes smudges the print on lesser-quality publications, and the simple sensation of holding a book - I fail to see how, in this respect, a Kindle beats a physical book (though I'll be singing a different tune when it comes to packing for my holiday, and I find I've  used up my baggage allowance on books before I've even packed my clothes). A cover is part of that feeling; for instance, if I've just read a book that has particularly resonated with me, I sometimes study the cover, trying to prolong the sensation the book has given me by trying to recognise aspects of the plot in the cover, and I'd be sad to lose that.

Personally, I don't think covers will ever become neligible, because they're now so closely associated with the books themselves; as the outer representatives of the books' contents, we need the covers to give us our 'first impression', to draw us in and give us our first inkling of what we're about to read; is it an adventure? A romance? A mystery? Yet another 'saga' about vampires who defy the Dracula Blueprint? And even if we one day succumb to the eBooks entirely, and relinquish our beloved hard copies (unlikely, but possible), we'll still want to be looking at the covers on Amazon before we commit to downloading.

P.S. I would like to point out that, having never used a Kindle, I'm not actually 100% sure if book covers are included when you download eBooks; I've gone on the word of my friend, which may or may not be wise! Still think the point stands though.

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