In Defence of Judging a Book by its Cover

The cliché is ingrained in our minds as children by adults encouraging us to be open-minded. Though it is not meant to extend to actual books, rather to judging any new thing before trying it, to what degree is it viable advice when it comes to choosing a literary text? Should we buy into guidance on not judging books by their covers?

According to online book-seller, Blind Date with a Book, books should never be judged by their covers. Their mission is to provide readers with fiction that they ‘may have missed by great authors or […] that perhaps did not receive the publicity they deserved’ by selling hand-wrapped novels, concealing covers. A few clues are provided regarding the plot, yet information such as titles and authors are excluded.

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One of the available texts

Stripping a novel down to five adjectives and providing no direction on its contents, Blind Date with a Book excludes vital information about each text beyond the subjective claim of it having not ‘received the publicity [it] deserved.’

Though the physicality of a novel does not affect the text, book covers provide readers with information to determine whether they may enjoy that book. If a person loves an author, genre, or historical period, they need only glance at a cover to know whether that book falls into said category. If they want to read for leisure, back covers not only provide synopses of plots, but also frequently reviews and endorsements showcasing publicity. Even subtle aspects of a cover— the title font, the imagery, publication information, etc.— give away information on the plot, genre, quality and popularity of a text.

I do not mean to argue that book quality and cover presentation have a direct correlation. There are plenty of good books which have not received widespread fame, and lack the physical “tell-tale” signs of popularity: displayed awards or endorsements, or availability in a luxurious hardcover. This may be the case for some books, but it does not mean readers should dismiss covers which do showcase popularity because others do not.

The cover of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize, exemplifies how readers can learn about a text before opening it. There are two available versions of the novel, published by Bloomsbury and Random House; from this fact alone, it is evident that the text is of a high standard. The Bloomsbury cover displays both the Man Booker Shortlist symbol, and a banner reading “WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017.” It also showcases praise from the media. The name “Lincoln” in the title hints at the historical setting, and an image of a young boy implies the novel is not about Abraham Lincoln, but his son.

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The Bloomsbury text and the Random House text

To argue that we should not “judge a book by its cover” is to argue that we should disregard something provided to inform us about a text. The cover gives information about a book before it is even opened; it is something that should be praised, not disparaged.

Haley Horton

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