Judging books by their covers


I Love to Read - photo by Carlos Porto reproduced under Creative Commons licence

I Love to Read - photo by Carlos Porto reproduced under Creative Commons licence

I have a confession to make.

I judge books by their covers. Don’t get me wrong, the contents are important too but if they’re wrapped up in presentation I wouldn’t want to have on my shelves it puts a huge barrier between me and the contents.

It’s not just about pretty pictures, otherwise I’d be drowning in travel guides and art books the size of throw pillows. No. It’s the whole aesthetic. The paper has to be just right, the illustration can’t be cluttered in the WRONG way, the font can’t be hideous or cramped (see the story of woe below), the width, the way the title is written across the spine, the weight…

Recently I was in Waterstones flicking idly through paperbacks. Something by one of the Mitford sisters caught my eye – I think it was Love in a Cold Climate – I read the blurb and was drawn in then I opened the book. The font was hideous. Everything was cramped and the text looked almost gloopy, like the ink had bled into the paper or maybe more like when you put too much ink on a printing surface and the result is completely indistinct. I instantly put the book back. I could probably have lived with a less pretty cover (although admittedly I wouldn’t have picked the book up in the first place if that had been the case) but ugly text would have been in my face throughout the whole reading experience. I’m now keeping a vague eye out for a different edition.

The opposite situation is also true: I will buy books on things I have no real interest in or cannot comprehend if they are sufficiently visually interesting – books in languages I cannot fathom, surgery guides, how-tos on industrial food production. I own all these things. I’m currently lusting after Homemade is Best by Carl Kleiner which is written in a language I can’t understand and, as far as I know, isn’t actually available in this country.

I appreciate that a lot of people will feel that I’m cutting myself off from important literature over something trivial and superficial. I have two responses: one is that the visual arts are as important to me as literature is to another person so the cover art and other visual considerations are a vital part of the experience; the other is that, for all its flaws, this approach has introduced me to some wonderful new authors. Without it I would never have discovered Barbara Pym, Alfred Bester and Alain de Botton.