Today’s post was inspire by several things that have been stewing in my brain for a while:
- The ‘coverflip’ project started by the ever so wonderful Maureen Johnson via Twitter (Maureen’s Twitter is @maureenjohnson and it is fabulous, a great example of an author using social media successfully to engage with her audience). I won’t go into detail about this project, but if you missed it’s coverage you can learn more about it here.
- The redesign of the Harry Potter books, which I’ve been following closely as a huge fan of the series. The immediate spark for writing this post came today when I read this article on the problems of marketing the series to children and adults separately.
- My own proclivity for buying the same book in various editions (I own half a dozen copies of Jane Eyre...and it's not even my favourite book). As well as my own very strong interest in the aesthetics of the books I own.
These three things all hinge on the issue of judging a book by its cover, which we all know we are not supposed to do but which we all do anyway. We’ve all heard a lot about the e-book revolution and the death of print etc. Well, it’s not a surprise that publishers have discerned what makes their printed books still relevant in the changing market—all of that talk of the ‘smell of old books,’ what everyone’s really talking about is the materiality of books and with that comes their aesthetics.
I am currently working on my Masters in Early Modern English Literature and while my dissertation is not focused on the details of the early book trade, I’ve spent much of the year in close contact with very old books. When you learn about the many complexities of early book production, you begin to really appreciate a book as an artefact. One of my core modules was taught by the British Library and so every week we were handling antique books, each with a very intricate history, and we were learning how to analyse the books as material objects. When you’re holding a book that King Henry VIII dropped in the mud, you are very aware that it is a physical object—gravity works on it and mud can cling to its pages.
These musings return to the ‘cover’ story when I glance at my bookshelf and begin to consider the volumes collected there as physical artefacts. The selection of books on my shelf here in London (really 1.5 bookcases full) is an interesting case study. These are the books I chose to bring with me from America, each one weighing down my suitcases as I flew across an ocean. These are also the books I’ve bought while living here over the past two years, some of which were specifically bought to fill up these bookcases almost as household accessories. As someone who went on about reading from love of literature and a desire for intellectual stimulation, this confession might be seen as shameful. Am I any better than Jay Gatsby with his shelves of books with the uncut pages?
I own a Kindle and so when I buy a book it’s because I genuinely wish to own the physical object and am happy to display it on my shelf. I could go on and on about what books I find most aesthetically pleasing, but I wonder what effect this valorisation of the aesthetics has on my reading. On the surface of course the answer is that it makes little to no effect on the actual reading of a book once you have it in your hands and are turning the pages. And yet Maureen Johnson’s ‘coverflip’ experiment shows that the increased privileging of aesthetics, combined with the capitalism of a desperate publishing industry, can lead to book covers misrepresenting, misinterpreting, and demeaning the contents of the book itself. What will sell? What do readers find aesthetically enticing enough to buy a physical book as opposed to the e-book? Inevitably certain images become privileged and we are given ‘pretty’ books that don’t match their stories. And through this practice of relying on images that prove marketable, potential readers can find their reading lives inadvertently limited by a misplaced privileging of the aesthetics over substance.
It makes you nostalgic for the days when books weren’t given special covers. In the early years of printed books, it was too expensive to put a proper cover on a book and so the purchaser would arrange binding separately according to his taste and budget. It was a bespoke bookbinding market—you could buy three or four play quartos and then take them to be bound together in a mini-anthology of your favourite plays. So cool!
Now we have girls with their heads cut off and neon Harry Potter covers with little relevance to the boy wizard's curious life at Hogwarts. These are the aesthetically pleasing covers the publishers have decided we will all want to display on our shelves, while we secretly read bodice-ripping historical romance novels on our Kindle. The article on the adult vs. child Harry Potter designs nicely hones in on the social capital of books. We are all presenting a carefully constructed image of ourselves to the world, it’s what we do every time we interact with another human being even without thinking about it. The books we read are a part of that image, if it’s just being broadcasted to strangers on the Tube or if it’s being judged by a new romantic partner examining our bookshelves for the first time. And apparently new adult readers of Harry Potter don't want to be seen as reading kids' book, even if it is one of the most popular and respected kids' books of all time.