It’s sort of astounding how, sometimes, those old adages prove true. I don’t think there’s a phrase better than “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” as illustrative metaphors go, but still, I’m guilty of doing just that. I work in a bookstore, and still – still! – certain covers make me cringe.
The trite is the most offensive category. Certain redundant images resurface like cat hair on your favorite sweater. Just when you thought you’d seen the last picture of a pair of hands cupping some seashells or sand, think again. That image of a woman looking over her shoulder, deep in thought, will reappear in countless incarnations. The image of a pensive eyeball surrounded by futuristic scrawl will probably continue to exist as long as books do, for better or for worse (probably for worse).
While it’s sometimes fun to play “spot the overused stock photo” (what can I say, booksellers are easily amused), there’s a deeper, sadder truth here, one that actually hurts a book’s chances at getting its due. If we’re assuming, for argument’s sake, that a book takes about a year to write, give or take a lot of wiggle room, the lines of ink on a given bookshelf represent hundreds or thousands of hours, not to mention a massive intellectual effort. There are exceptions, surely, in which some wunderkind or other writes the next great American novel in five or so days, but otherwise, an unappealing cover can correlate with time spent in vain. It can render all those hours at a computer almost useless, and it can reduce an intricate, multi-dimensional novel into the sort of one-off categories that make editors and many readers shudder: chick lit, beach reads, something with the insinuation of fluff or lack of artistry.
And of course, that’s not to say there aren’t some novels that deserve their design. Maybe they do, indeed, fall into an easy category. It should be obvious, but we all want different things: the backseat of my car holds a YA novel, some classic literature, and some sci-fi at any given moment. Books come in all shapes, sizes, and types, and that’s sort of the point; when there are so many eccentricities and tastes, why standardize covers? Why reuse images that evoke a connotation far more reductionist than what’s actually inside?
I could theorize until I ran out of free space on the internet, but the truth is, there’s a lesson to be learned here. I could be better, you could be better, we all could be better about dismissing a title because it’s got a holographic cover or a dragon on the front. Instead, why not make your trip to the bookstore more luxurious. Pick an unlikely title and settle into a chair, and then open it up. Spend some time between its pages, and discover for yourself the difference between visual perception and literary reality.