Oh books! How I love thee! If you have ever purchased a physical book because of its cover or because it will nicely match the books already on your shelf, then The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri (published in the US with Vintage Books, 2016) will be a delight for you, as it was for me.
In her slim essay, Lahiri gives a ode (or critique?) of book covers and book jackets. She compares book covers to the clothes we wear. She discuses wearing uniforms to school versus wearing our own clothing: what is the difference that we feel? Then, after this unique introduction, she discusses book cover design from both the author perspective and the reader’s perspective.
Essentially, Lahiri argues that a book cover is a mask for the text itself. All book covers are actually an interpretation of the author’s words. As we all have done at times, Lahiri mourns when a book she loves has a ridiculous book cover that doesn’t relate to the book really at all. Did the designer read the book? If they did, what was their particular interpretation in order to design a cover in this way?
Because of the way book covers add interpretation to the author’s words (and the author has very little say about it!), she suggests that maybe we want a universal look to books. I’ll admit I have a number of books from various series that “match” and I got them particularly so my books on the shelf will match! I love the uniform look! But unique book covers also have a purpose.
Lahiri doesn’t declare what type of book cover is best. There is no answer to that. Rather, she explores the impact and influence of book jackets on the reader. She ends with this lovely thought:
In the end, the beauty of the cover has nothing to do with it. Like every true love, that of the reader is blind.
Those precious words are what make books delightful to me, as a reader. This is why the kindle is okay for me: with that, I enjoy the author’s words. But, I will still also cherish the lovely covered books I find as I view them as the art that they are.
Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri wrote this essay originally in Italian as “Il vestito dei libri” and presented it as a speech in Italian at the Festival degli Scrittori in Florence in 2015. It was translated into English by her husband.