Sunday, June 05, 2005

Judging books by their covers

Who was it that decided one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? I was in Barnes and Noble yesterday, and I find judging a book by its cover very useful. A certain kind of small, thick book with block letters on the cover and little art is clearly a mystery novel. Add a little art and it’s some kind of popular fiction. Some cover art just says “I am literature, not just fiction.” Pink covers with curly fonts with pictures of high heels and martini glasses scream “chick-lit.” I recognize the covers of books from certain publishers—the orange spines of Penguin books, for instance, or the small Signet Classics—and treat them with varying levels of trust.

Other books are less clear. Most science fiction is easy to recognize—by the title, the font, the cover art. Yesterday I picked up a copy of Flowers for Algernon. It didn’t look like science fiction, but the back cover proclaimed that it was a winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, which I thought had something to do with sci-fi. I took it over to Brian, who knows more about that genre than I do. He confirmed that it was science fiction, but the kind that I like—I’m resistant to strange names and different planets, but I can handle time travel and futuristic laboratory science. When I was reading The Time Traveler’s Wife and described it to Brian, he said, “You’re reading science fiction?” I was reluctant to describe it as such. “No,” I told him, “it’s just sort of…magic. But treated as real.”

I should admit that I am a book snob. Where a book is in the store and what its cover looks like matters to me. Flowers for Algernon looked interesting. I don’t read much sci-fi, but since it wasn’t in that section (although maybe it was just misfiled, since it didn’t have a black cover with futuristic looking people or creatures on it), I thought it might be worth my attention. But those books with the bright pink or green covers? The one where a cartoonish woman with a high ponytail and high heels holds a martini glass or a shopping bag? That’s chick-lit, and I’m not even going to pick it up to read the back cover. But if a book has a blurry, artsy photo, that’s my book. Blurb from the New Yorker? I’ll take it. A sticker indicating that it’s got Oprah’s approval? Oohh, that’s tough. Some of those books are a little too…Oprah, for my tastes. But then she goes and picks Anna Karenina or The Corrections. What then? And of this is to say that I only read books that are (or aspire to be) “literary fiction.” I look forward to new Patricia Cornwell mysteries. I buy some of those small, fat popular novels. But somehow those aren’t the same for me as the classic books or the new authors I read.

I’m such a snob, that I’m even a bit embarrassed to admit that I was in Barnes and Noble yesterday. I love to look through the books recommended by Booksense. I’d rather say I was in an independent bookstore—Kramerbooks or Chapters. It makes me miss Santa Cruz, where Bookshop Santa Cruz is as big and as comfortable for browsing as Barnes and Noble is. I go to Barnes and Noble, and I buy books on, but I would rather admit to lurking in few, long, narrow aisles of Kulturas, my favorite used book store. That is truly a store for people who love to read—it’s hard to find a specific title, as they don’t know precisely what they have in stock; alphabetical order in approximate (if you are looking for Toni Morrison, start when you first see authors whose names begin with K, and continue until you run into someone whose last name starts with R); and books are two or three deep on the shelves, with more on their sides, stacked on top of those that are lined up neatly. That even makes digging through the mysteries fun, although in my pretentiousness, I tend to wander through the genre-less fiction, picking out books that have been noted by Booksense, or that have those artsy, literary covers. I go there because I like picking up books I've never heard of and those I have, so I can touch them, read the covers or the first chapters, put them back on the shelf, and lose them among other classics and best sellers and obscure titles, while I move on to something else.


matty said...

i, too, judge books by their covers.
you can spot a penguins classic anywhere with their pale green spine and black and white photo on the cover. there's kafka and steinbeck in those, but you have to watch yourself because "dubliners" is published that way as well.
i can spot classic detective or suspense fiction (Hammet, Chandler), thanks to vintage. and i've trusted their bright fluorescent fonts on their spines in pointing out other Highsmith or Thompson books.
and they have a fine series of what i consider classics, including "Lolita" and "Invisible Man." i can spot these spines because the titles' letters are individually vertical with black stripes at the top and bottom.
we all judge a book by its cover, though i teach my students every year that they should focus on the title, author, and synopsis first. but i guess i'm a hypocrite, which isn't new either. said...

We are all guilty of judging a book by its cover. I read almost everything. When desperate I have been known to read the back of cereal boxes, but I agree with previous contribution "But those books with the bright pink or green covers? The one where a cartoonish woman with a high ponytail and high heels holds a martini glass or a shopping bag? That’s chick-lit, and I’m not even going to pick it up to read the back cover." Has no appeal, sort of like "Sex in the city". Vapid, venal, waste of a good tree...Australian