(28 march 2007)

as the cliché goes, you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover. i know this isn’t strictly a literary moral. it has deeper meanings. it’s trying to say that we aren’t supposed to judge our fellow humanity for things like wearing caftans and carrying amulets. we should get to know them and understand why they wear caftans and carry amulets and then we can judge them at our leisure.

but to take the cliché literally, what the hell are we supposed to judge a book by if not its cover?

recently, i’ve been dabbling in novels. not heavily and not with any intent of defecting to fiction, but just poking my nose here or there as a flippant distraction as i biographically wind my way through the many mistresses of george iv. and i’ve come to notice that i always judge a novel by its cover.

in biography- because biography is most often about a single character- the cover is a fairly straightforward thing. it involves a picture of the biographical subject. since there are inordinately more biographies of beautiful people, this picture is usually quite lovely. if it’s a woman, she’s in soft-focus and fluffy-haired and possibly accompanied by a small dog. if a man, he’s stern, and in a becoming power pose and tight pants.

the plot of a biography is captured not so much in the cover as in the title, which is often a breathless variation on this theme: my lady scandalous: the many scandalous lives of the scandalous mary robinson: the secret, the sex slave, the scandals! or, if a man: the scandalous sex prince: the many scandalous lives of the scandalous king george iv: the secret marriage & the scandalous seductions! that’s biography.

but what about fiction? its titles err of the side of brevity and the allures of its covers need to be immediately accessible. we do not wander into the fiction aisle and grab the first plain jane penguin edition that catches our eye. nay! we want cool colors! provocative pictures! gold stickers! or maybe this is just me and my acute aesthetic attraction to all things bright.

wives & daughters entered my life because it was hot pink. it was written by elizabeth gaskell and that had a teeny tiny something to do with my forking over the $7.98, but mostly i coveted the hot pink. it would be a welcome burst of life alongside the lineup of dark and dreary austen maroons. a 678-page fragment of a novel, wives & daughters is one of the best things i’ve read this year. and i read it only because it looked like it’d been dunked in a bucket of flamingo dream.

equally superficial attractions drew me to bel canto. it first caught my eye years ago, but i nabbed it at the white elephant for two reasons- 1) it cost 50 cents, and 2) it’s cover boasted that it had won the orange prize. like most fiction, bel canto concluded in a manner perfectly calculated to exceedingly frustrate me, but i enjoyed it nonetheless. it’s a lyrical little novel about a south american dinner party taken hostage by terrorists- and i picked it up solely because it was cheap and had won a prize named after a fruit.

the grim reality is that we can never read all the books we want to read. thus, we must pick and choose. i’m sure i’m missing a whole heap of glories simply because an art director somewhere out there has a fondness for beige and his books are winning boring normal awards named for people rather than produce. but i’m okay with that. we can’t read all the books we should read, so why not read the 50 cent oranges instead?

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