“There is nothing more fit to be looked at than the outside of a book,” declared 19th century satirist Thomas Love Peacock. Indeed, if you’re a book lover you’ll know what he meant. Those perfectly parallel lines promising fantastic adventures to be had within; those hundreds of meticulously aligned pages proffering printed words ready to make your heart soar and head giddy…
Thing is, though, Thomas lived in a time when books were hardback, plain affairs, with only very modest smatterings of jacket design – a hint of gold trim, perhaps – to attract readers. It was practically impossible to judge a book by its cover.
Now though, we exist in a literary land bursting with colours and images, where fancy embossed typefaces scream ‘READ ME. LOOK HOW SNAZZY I AM’, and walking into Waterstones is an assault on the senses as hundreds of lurid book covers compete for your attention. Of course, in Thom’s day, books were for solely about learnin’. These days, they’re also a money spinner: the backbone of a £64 billion industry worldwide. Publishers are not patrons of the arts, they’re commercial operations. A big part of their job is touting their wares, and women are an easy target.
It’s not rocket science: historical fiction almost always features an ornately-attired woman gazing longingly out of a casement window; covers of ‘chick lit’ titles (a fairly condescending term which deserves its own post) are drowning in swirly fonts and pastel illustrations; memoirs of tragic childhoods with suitably horrendous titles like Daddy No (Jesus) are identifiable by the small, wide-eyed child in sepia tones and a serious typeface. You get the gist. It’s easy to judge a book by its cover nowadays, which means it’s easy to judge its reader, too, right? Well, yes and no.
Whether we realise it or not, we make assumptions about what kind of person someone is, simply by the cover of the book they’re reading. Chick-lit: dappy? ‘Now a major motion picture’: a literary fashionista?
To be fair, I’m not immune to this. I was at the cinema recently and saw a trailer for Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Having read the book some years ago, I thought: “Brilliant. Must dig out my copy for a re-read before the film comes out.” But I couldn’t find it, and I panicked. “Crap. I’ll have to get another before the only copies going are covered in Keira Knightley’s poreless, pouting chops.” Why? Because I like to think I’m a bit clever and wouldn’t want to be seen reading a moviefied version like the rest of the proles on the Northern Line.
That, and the fact that Anna Karenina is a story of social ostracisation, damning soviet expectations and, ultimately, mental illness. A picture of a tightly corseted film star kinda undermines all that, doesn’t it? (Yet, I will concede that film adaptations do at least encourage folk to pick up books that may otherwise have gone unnoticed).
But herein lays the problem, it is impossible to judge a book by its cover these days – and therefore the person behind the cover – because covers very often bear little or no resemblance to what’s going on within its pages.
Consider, for example, Jenny Colgan’s 2001 book Looking For Andrew McCarthy. The plot focuses on a man working in an office, yet the author herself lamented “Not a single man will buy it because it has a pastel cover”. Or Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds, a campus satire about the internal machinations of a Cambridge college. The protagonist is a 56-year-old grandfather-to-be and the book’s main theme centres on the politics of higher education funding. Established writer Juliet Doyle commends the book for tackling “some very pertinent contemporary issues in education as well as a tangle of modern dilemmas”, yet notes that the cover “with its pastel shades and whimsical hearts and flowers and dove shrieks ‘light, fluffy, inconsequential holiday reading’”. Or there’s Catherine Merriman’s State of Desire (“a dreadful title that I didn’t even choose,” she says). Or Douglas (yep, a bloke) Kennedy’s Temptation… the list goes on. These are all acclaimed titles with misrepresenting covers liable to illicit an unjustly raised brow from observing literati, but they keep rolling off the presses. Because they sell.
What to do, then, among this tangled web of fibbing book covers, literary snobbishness and the simple pursuit of just having a good read? It is, I suppose, a moot point. If the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon has taught us anything (apart from questionable moves for the bedroom), it’s that e-readers are the way forward. Like CDs, books are dying out. It pains me to say that, as I more than anybody appreciates a good sniff of freshly pressed pages, and I take great delight in proudly displaying my library of literary classics (all read, thank you very much), but like a school uniform, e-readers eliminate any judginess from onlookers while smiting manipulative marketing execs for their ludicrous and ill-informed cover ideas. Sure, they’re killing off books as books, but are also probably playing a role in keeping the pure enjoyment of reading and art of writing alive.
And also, they’re quite a great deal lighter than traditional books. Do you even realise how weighty Anna Karenina is?
Rachel England is bloody funny. She writes an absolutely super blog, which you must go and read immediately. You may in fact lose several hours of your life to it. Rachel is a freelance journalist and editor. You can hire her via her website. You can also find her on Twitter.