Do Book Covers Matter?


 

Throughout our lives, we are told “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. But does that advice always hold true? Does a book’s cover matter as much as what’s inside it? Common sense tells me that it shouldn’t; that we should give every book a fair shake, regardless of its outside appearance. But a recent example in my own life showed me that this doesn’t always hold true. I received Rachel Kushner’s book The Flamethrowers as a Christmas gift from my oldest son and, since it came highly recommended by him and the critics, I was looking forward to reading it. However, every time I saw it sitting there on my coffee table or my bedside table or just as I was about to pick it up and settle into my favorite reading chair, something inside me recoiled when I gazed at the orange and white book cover. First of all, orange is one of my least favorite colors for a book cover, unless it’s about Halloween or the psychedelic sixties. Secondly, I had an almost physical aversion to the picture of the woman (At least I think it’s a woman) on it. The way it’s shaded, she looks almost surreal and the “x” of tape across her mouth with the words “a novel” written on it, makes me envision the worst kind of censorship and all sorts of other unpleasant associations.  From this point on, the book shifts from one I’m eagerly looking forward to reading to one I feel “I should read” because it would be “good for me”. Kind of like the difference between eating cauliflower and ice cream if you know what I mean. 

 

So here it was March and I had still managed to avoid reading this book that I saw people devouring everywhere since you really can’t miss the cover (which may have been the intent, who knows). But this week, I saw in the paper that Rachel Kushner would be reading from The Flamethrowers at Ithaca College and I did not want to hear her without at least having some idea of what the book was about. So (true confession!) I took off the cover, put it face down on the floor, and began to read. And I loved it. Her use of language and her ability to capture, not only the meaning behind her character’s words but also the cadence of their speech was incredible. To think I almost passed on reading it, or attending her talk was unbearable. To me, the ugliness of the cover of the book was a total disconnect from the beauty of the content but nevertheless the outside appearance was the deciding factor in whether I picked it, or a different novel, up at the end of a long workday.

In the same vein, this week I also went to hear a panel of writing industry professionals speak at Cornell University’s Creative Writing Series and they unequivocally agreed that the hugest, most contentious issue they deal with on a regular basis is cover art. It’s rarely something all involved can agree on and the public may have a whole different reaction to it.

My feeling is that authors should be invested in the outside, as well as the inside of the books they put so much time into writing.  Your thoughts?

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