Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Great book jackets and the books they enclose

The Books, Time, and Silence 10 Days of Christmas - Day 7

For today's post I intended to share a selection of my favourite book jackets, but browsing my bookshelves I realised that all the jackets I was picking out were those whose content I loved. I wasn't picking jackets I liked, but books I liked. I was incapable of distinguishing between a good cover and a good book. It wasn't that every book I love had a great cover, but that every cover that spoke to me was attached to a book I had enjoyed. The only exception to this rule was Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which I haven't yet read, but since it is made up almost entirely of jaw-droppingly beautiful illustrations it would be difficult not to like the jacket too.

This got me thinking: what is the relationship between a book and its jacket. We all know that the marketers out their have created bookshops in which half the books are attempting to ape each other to be the new something or other. Either they want to put symbols on the cover to appeal to fans of Dan Brown, or they have pastel coloured summer scenes in which out of focus women (often without a head) lie on soft green grass in order to reference the sort of Jodi Picoult 'issue' book which has become so popular recently. There is nothing inherently wrong with this either. If it gets more people reading books they otherwise wouldn't read then all the better. Sure there are those out there who will say it commodifies authors rather than books, or in practice serves only to narrow people's reading habits rather than expanding them. And there are aspects in each of these arguments which are entirely valid.

I have a penchant for brightly coloured jackets, rich and enticing. There is little doubt in my mind that a jacket has an impact on what book I choose to buy or read, and that even when I've decided which it continues to shape my expectations and pre-conceptions about what the book will be like. This impact is more than size of print or quality of peper, but not as great, say, as the synopsis or quoted review, but it is a major aspect of the decision making process.

Yet for the purposes of this article I want to think about what happens between books, their jackets, and their readers once they have all left the store together.

A book on a shelf is not just a book, it's a part of the d├ęcor of the room. I may not chose or shelve my books according to their jackets, but I do like to sit in a room and stare at the books lining the walls. And I am drawn to those books which I have already read and loved. The ones I haven't read are rarely even noticed. Why is this? Why is there such a link between the jackets I like and the books I like. Is it that my enjoyment of a book is predetermined by my appreciation of its jacket? I don't think so. I read Midnight's Children in a dowdy and boring Everyman's Classic edition and loved it. On the other hand, despite (at the time) loving the jacket for John Banville's The Sea, I was distinctly underwhelmed by the contents of the book itself.

My contention is that a books jacket is only important until the book has been read. After this, the jacket takes on the qualities of a pane of glass, providing a window through which the words inside project themselves outwards. Psychologically, since you see the jacket whenever you pick up or put down a book, it is difficult not to develop learned responses to the jacket in question.

I like this idea, it suggests that far from judging a book by its cover, our relationship with a book and its cover are malleable, flexible, and make up only a tiny percentage of the total experience of reading a book. And when the book is read, what shines through the jacket is not a corporate image of what a marketer wants us to associate, but the book itself.

As with love, we see with our hearts, rather than our heads.

Below are some of the jackets I picked out from my shelves tonight, that I like most. Enjoy.

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