Several years ago I sat in my friend’s car while reading “Woman in Love” by D. H. Lawrence. Having just started college, all I knew about Lawrence was that many considered him a great writer, and that he included a lot of dirty scenes in his books. These two facts combined were enough to pique interest. When my friend came out of the store, she glanced at the cover and said “I never thought I would see you reading that type of book.”
This comment confused me. I had built a bit of a reputation as a literary snob; that novel was exactly the kind of book I was known for reading at the time. I looked at the cover, at the red cursive letters spelling out “Woman” and “Love.” She thought it was a trashy romance novel.
I never finished that book. There is a long list of complaints I could voice as the reasons I never finished, but the fact that it looked like I was reading a romance novel—the antithesis to my then image—played a certain part in my disinterest. As much as we like to pretend otherwise, we judge people by what they’re reading and in turn we try to impress people with our own reading. There are the books we place the shelves in our dens or living rooms, and there are the books that we hide in drawers, closets or even on the shelf behind those more impressive tomes. Even with a book we love enough to recommend, if it has an embarrassing cover it may still only be read in private.
While the clichéd saying “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover” is true to a certain extent, we can’t help but judge. There are just too many books in the world. As I wonder the shelves of a bookstore, my eye is drawn by flashes of color or surprising images. I trust that the content and the cover of the book have some shared aesthetics. After the book catches my attention I pick it up, read the back or inside flap, maybe even a sentence or two. If the book still seem appealing after this initial inspection, it comes home with me.
If it weren’t for covers we’d be overwhelmed, spending hours reading plot summaries. The cover communicates a lot of information: what genre, what age group, the potential for graphic violence or explicit sex scenes. Immediately by looking at the cover we have a sense of which books match our tastes. No doubt there are some great books I have not read because I didn’t like the cover. And there are some books that I took home, which once I started reading I couldn’t wait to get it out of my house.
Book covers also appeal to my wandering eye. Sitting in a coffee shop I’ll see some one reading. I get up and for a napkin or walk to the window as though I’m waiting for someone, just to get the glance at the book. Now, however, I can’t always find out what type of book a stranger is reading, as they hold in their hands an e-reader. I become sure that they are reading an exciting brilliant new author that I will never discover on my own. I don’t begrudge the new technology, but I can’t help but feel a little jealous that I don’t get know what the man at the bus stop or the woman in the restaurant are reading. I suspect though that the unjustly despised romance genre may get a few new readers.