Books by the Cover

I’ve been asked to review a book, for a gender studies journal. When I received the book in the mail, and opened up the package, I could feel my face twisting into a frown. Here’s an image of the cover:






A few days later, I was leaving the house and was looking for some train reading. This book is small, so I grabbed it. But, then, I appeared in my own mind’s eye: a nerdy looking lady on the subway, wearing a a fluffy white mohair jacket and reading a book with this cover. I didn’t like it. So I removed the dust jacket and put the book in my bag.

When I review this book, I will not address the cover. I will unpack the presumptions that are embedded in the title. And I will point to the qualifications the authors make, in the introduction, regarding these presumptions. I will address the book’s scholarship. That is what a book review should do. And that is what I will do.

But can I just vent about this cover, about book covers in general, for a second here?

There is, frankly, no way that my reading of this book will not be affected by the initial – physical – reaction that I had when I saw the cover. There’s no way that my reading won’t be affected by the sensationalist combination of colors on the cover. These are news magazine colors (red, black, white). They signal a mix of objectivity and alarm. They seem to make the title’s unhelpfully broad and essentializing central question (“why are women more religious than men?”) less a speculative query to be investigated and more a statement of fact (“women are more religious than men!”). And then there are all the cues about race, religion, and age, that are shrouding the choice of image.  I’ve tried not to think about the cover, and to focus on the scholarship. But the more I try not to think about it, the more fascinating this cover becomes.

The injunction that we should never judge a book by its cover is, I think, one of the most worthless cliches in the English language. I’m just going to put myself on the line and say that I always judge a book by its cover. To be sure, my judgements are not simple and never amount to something like “approval” vs. “disapproval.” And, of course, the cover is never the only thing I take into account. But, ultimately, these allegedly superficial cues are extremely important and are loaded with information. They tell you something about the press, about the target audience. And they even begin to gesture towards subterranean aspects of the argument or the central concern. Or, in the more unfortunate cases, they twist and malign some aspect of the argument.

You know what I think would be interesting? An academic journal that asks scholars to review books based solely on the covers. Reviewers would be asked to avoid reading the book itself and would be asked to use their background in the field to compile a series of intuitive and speculative pre-judgements of the text in question. Other academics could make reference to this journal, as one of host of resources that they use to cull information about new work in the field. Everyone would be aware of the absurd and speculative nature of these reviews. But I really don’t think this would make them less valuable as sources of insight and critique.

I don’t know, readers, am I wrong? Can you show me a cover that has so little to say about the book that I’ll want to retract my claims? Alternately, can you show me some wonderful/terrible/fortuitous/unfortunate cover that will distract my attention from this one?

10 thoughts on “Books by the Cover

  1. An academic journal that asks scholars to review books based solely on the covers.

    I’ve been teaching Lolita these last few weeks and all I can think about every day when I come into the room is the book covers. About half the class has the newer “lips” edition, the other half the classic “legs” edition. Did these designers not read even a tiny bit of the book?

  2. Can you show me a cover that has so little to say about the book that I’ll want to retract my claims?

    Any number of Routledge books with covers more or less identical to this or this.

  3. For being so super-religious, this woman doesn’t appear to know how to use a rosary. Surely if she was actually praying, she’d be holding on to one of the beads, right? Or am I being overly picky, when I should be focusing on her beautifully manicured fingernails?

  4. The cover that is showing is both a cover that conceals and that which shows in order to conceal. This a reflection of the necessity of having to buy the book to discover why women are more religious? If it was phrased more speculatively it could lead to the conclusion that there is some doubt to the worthiness of the question which in turn presents an obstacle to the purchase of the book. Notice there seems to be no reference to the answer to the question which would indicate the form in which the answer would take – which I would find personally more compelling.

    The connotations of alarm linked with the red font colour is secondary to its link with that of blood and sacrifice. The function of highlighting women and men is, for me, suggestive of the battle of the sexes in which it presents a familiar motif for the potential reader to relate to.

  5. I don’t know, Adam… I don’t mean to make any presumptions, but I’m willing to bet that your field of knowledge renders you more qualified to critique the positioning of the rosary beads, rather than the manicure. WIth that said… I almost did say something in the original post about the manicure. In case there was to be any confusion about whether those are man-hands or woman-hands, they leave her nails just long enough. If you look closely, you can also see that there’s a coat of clear polish on them. All of this begs the highly mysterious and perplexing question: “Why Are Women’s Nails More Manicured Than Men’s?”

    @ben: those Routledge covers are murder. I feel like the cover, itself, is actually a form of mild sedative (like those semi-hallucinogenic screen savers) that’s subtly aimed at neutralizing your critical faculties that demand to be entertained or amused.

    @gerry: The day that copyright expires (or you expire) and any publisher can just float your book out there, without getting your input on cover design, must be the nightmare of so many writers…

  6. Whoa! Review much? Know anything about the book business? The author RARELY has anything to do with the book design or cover – for nearly all publishers, that is left to the asshats in marketing…and I think as a reviewer you should criticize relentlessly what those asshats do…but if you can’t separate the book from the cover you aren’t a very good reviewer!

  7. Sure, it’s often (though not always) the case that an author doesn’t get cover approval. Perhaps the last comment I made doesn’t reflect this. But, the fact is, in my post I’m simply not heaping blame onto the authors of this book for the cover. More, if you actually read my post, you would have taken note of the fact that I did clarify that when I review the book I will indeed “separate the book from the cover.” (Though I should thank you for your thoughtful and courteous gesture at constructive criticism.) The point I’m making here is simply that there are inevitably certain kinds of observer effects that impact the way we receive things, including books. The material conditions in which we read inevitably make some small difference in the way we read. Take marginalia, for instance. You check out a library book that’s loaded with marginalia. This, obviously, is something that the writer has “nothing to do with”… except to the extent that the writer wrote the book that’s being marked. Ultimately, once you’ve finished the book, you won’t remember the scribbles and marks on the side of the page. You’ll recall the argument, and a few select details. But is there some chance that certain passages stood out to you (passages you might not have noticed, or that would have seemed less significant) because they’d been marked? It’s not unlikely. Will this significantly shape how you read the book? Perhaps, perhaps not. Have you failed to read the book “properly” if you don’t relentlessly ignore and discount every marginal scribble on the page? That seems fanatical, to me. It seems better to maintain awareness of the fact that these small details might impact your reading (and how)… so that you can cautiously attempt to disentangle these marks from your reading.

  8. Problematising the Book Cover is like writing any other paper where a single issue is quarantined but from the epistemological pov it is artificial and arbitrary. Nothing comes alone – why only the book cover – there is an ontological unity which ancient Indian wisdom so emphatically announces. Thus, the larger picture is perhaps indicated by the picture on the book so that the reader is alerted not to be taken in by the narrow arguments offered inside. [TNM55]

  9. I for one would love to see a review of book covers! Maybe one issue a year in magazines that routinely review books could be devoted to deconstructing the covers that year: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The authors I have known have had their suggestions entirely disregarded about book covers. Perhaps if more attention was drawn to the subtle and not so subtle messages they convey, it would inspire some change in the publishing industry!

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