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Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover? - Karen's Musings — LiveJournal
Random Rambling
Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover?
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Is it really possible to avoid judging books by their covers? To a certain extent, sure it is, but I think overall, I believe we all have to rely on covers much of the time. Lemme esplain:

When I walk into a bookstore like Borders or Barnes & Noble, I'm immediately assaulted with "New in Paperback", "New in Hardcover", "New Fiction", "New Non-Fiction", "New Biography", "Staff Recommendations", "Local Authors" and other such sections. There was a time that the "New" sections were relatively small, but these days, you're looking at 40 books in each of the "New" categories, minimum. "New in Paperback" probably has double that, at least in the bookstore I walked into on Friday.

If I'm not looking for a specific title and I just want to browse, I have a number of things I can rely on: friends' recommendations, whether I've heard of an author before, whether the book is on the staff recommendations list, whether the title sounds interesting, what genre the book is, how prominently the title is displayed, how many copies are in stock (this tells a lot about what the store projects the potential sales of the book to be, particularly for new titles), and yes, sadly, whether the cover draws me in. If I've never heard of a book or its author and the title doesn't tell me enough information, I have a choice to make: do I pick the book up and read the back cover or inside jacket? I'd like to read all the back covers, at least of those whose titles or genres don't completely turn me off, but if I picked up every single book in the "New in Paperback" section and read even the first two sentences of the blurb, I'd have spent all afternoon in the bookstore on Frid
ay. As it was, I spent 45 minutes, just enough to get to the store and back to my office within an hour.

So how do I decide whether I've got the time to read the blurb? Absent some other recommendation from a friend or colleague, the cover is what helps me decide. I used to be ashamed of this, and would intentionally pick up books whose covers repulsed me, just to prove that the cover didn't affect my book choice, but the cover always affected my bias as I read the blurb. Should I get it? Will I be embarassed to be seen reading a book with this cover on the subway? (okay, I don't ride the subway anymore, but that's not the point) And so, I pick up books whose covers either interest me, or which speak to me in some other way.

It's interesting to see what things on a cover can draw me in. I tend toward simplicity in color and design, but not always. Sometimes it is the font of the title that draws me in, or the use of colour on the page. Often it is the texture and material used for the cover. Glossy covers don't draw me in as quickly as matte finished covers, for some reason. Muted colours are more likely to draw my attention than flourescent or primary colours. Simple, clean lines will draw my eyes faster than swirls and lightning bolts. A small, well-placed photograph might draw my eye, but a full photo cover is less likely to, unless it is rendered in some artistic fashion. Anything too busy is likely to leave me wondering if I should bother.

And so, having found a cover which appeals to me, I read the back cover. If the back cover interests me enough, I might read a page or two, though not necessarily the first two pages. I'll likely skim the first paragraph. It's always hardest for me to read the first couple of pages of a book, though, even of my very favorite books, so I'll also skim a page in the middle, after the author has found his or her groove, so to speak. I skim less for content and more for language use... does the author use clear, but interesting, language? Is the style flowery or technical or simple or poetic? Is there interesting vocabulary? And, oddly, how does the format of the page appeal to me? What font is it? How large are the margins, how much white space on the page? Does the author use standard grammar and formatting conventions, or are they using language in some unique way? (No right answer here, folks... Frank McCourt doesn't use standard conventions, but rather a stream-of-cons
ciousness style that works for him... were another author to try to mimic his style, I might find it difficult to follow, but for McCourt it works... so no right answer, but it's still something I check out)

And then, having passed my cursory inspection, I have to decide: Do I get the book, or do I leave it behind. Even if I were in a library, rather than a bookstore, so that I could afford unlimited book options, I have to remember that my time itself is limited. I don't WANT to pick up a book I won't enjoy. I've certainly purchased my share of dull or annoying books. But I'm pretty good at spotting a few gems per visit.

Book choices have gotten harder as I've gotten older... It's hard to define my taste by genre alone; I don't have a favorite author specifically; there are a LOT more books to choose from. Too many choices, but how amazing and wonderful that we DO have so many choices! If I've received a strong recommendation from a friend, I probably won't even notice the cover. But if I have to pick a book with no other cues, I definitely judge a book by its cover, even when I don't intend to. How about you?
16 comments or Leave a comment
allah_sulu From: allah_sulu Date: July 10th, 2006 02:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover

That's a line in the song "Sweet Transvestite" in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The usual callback is "I have to, I can't read!"

Sometimes you have to judge a book by its cover if that's all you have to go on. I agree, however, that it should, optimally, be but one of many factors – the author, if known to you; the synopsis on the back cover and/or inside jacket, reviews you've gotten of the book and/or author from friends (the reviews on/in the book itself are usually worthless), and so forth.

When books are placed on the shelf with the front cover facing outwards (generally done for new books in front of the store), it's definitely the cover art that catches your eye first. However, for the other books which are shelved with only the spine visible (to fit more books in less space) it's the title and/or author that are the first thing to catch your eye. You only see the cover art if the title/author makes you pull the book out to give it a further look.

hopeness From: hopeness Date: July 10th, 2006 03:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was just thinking this. I rarely ever buy books in the bookstore; I'm a library gal. With only the spines of the books visible, it's a lot more challenging for the cover to "grab" me.
estherchaya From: estherchaya Date: July 10th, 2006 11:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
Library books are also different because library editions are not always the same as mainstream editions.

I love libraries in theory, but I hate them in practice. I don't like giving books back!
magid From: magid Date: July 10th, 2006 04:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, I find that the spines can make a difference. The font can be unreadable, or not enough contrast to the color of the spine, or all caps (I dislike that enormously), and I'll pass it by. OTOH, if the title is intriguing, even though the author's unknown, I'm more likely to pick it up and read a page. (I avoid the blurbs on the back because it tends to give more away than I'd like, plus doesn't give any idea of the writer's voice.)
estherchaya From: estherchaya Date: July 11th, 2006 12:14 am (UTC) (Link)
agreed on all points. I tend to read the first sentence or two of the blurb and then turn to a few random pages in the book.
magid From: magid Date: July 11th, 2006 03:17 am (UTC) (Link)
I always start browsing the book at the beginning. I want to see if the start draws me in. Plus, otherwise I'll (a) be waiting for the bit of plot I'd already read, and (b) have an odd already-seen-this feeling about that bit, and sort of want to skip it, but won't.

But then, I'm a bit odd.
estherchaya From: estherchaya Date: July 10th, 2006 11:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
I absolutely agree that judging a book by its cover should only be one of a variety of factors considered. I find, though, that even if I only have the spine to go by, I can infer a lot by the care taken with the font and style of the spine, but yes, the title plays a larger role in that scenario.
debsters1101 From: debsters1101 Date: July 10th, 2006 03:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
so what'd you get? and is it any good?
estherchaya From: estherchaya Date: July 11th, 2006 12:17 am (UTC) (Link)
I got "The Kite Runner" on a friends' recommendation, but haven't gotten very far in it.
I got "Bridget Jones' Diary" because I needed some mindless entertainment.
I got "Max et les Maximonstres" (Where the Wild Things Are in French)
I got "If you Give a Mouse a Cookie"
I got "No, David!"
And I got a book by Jodi Picoult because I was interested in seeing what her other books were like (I recently read "My Sister's Keeper" which was interesting, but ultimately disappointing).

I actually bought nothing based on my cover inspections because nothing really grabbed my eye.
debsters1101 From: debsters1101 Date: July 11th, 2006 02:09 am (UTC) (Link)
oooo jodi picoult is my absolute favorite author. When you say you were disappointed by the end of my sisters keeper, do u mean you didnt like the ending for emotional reasons or for you thought she could do better or you just thought it was dumb?
most of her books are, in my opinion, impossible to put down from start to finish. and the end, to me at least, is always a surprise.
which one did you get?
estherchaya From: estherchaya Date: July 11th, 2006 11:19 am (UTC) (Link)
I ultimately found it a disappointment for several reasons. Mostly, I think she took the easy way out in ending it the way she did, first of all. It left me irritated. It wasn't the emotional impact that bothered me; no matter how the book had ended, it would have been an emotional blow. I just think that she picked the cheesiest, most implausible scenario and expanded on it. The other thing that really, really, really bothered me was that her fantasy of how epilepsy works is completely ridiculous. You don't get up from a grand mal seizure and move on with your day as if nothing ever happened. It doesn't work that way. Nor is it likely that you hide it from the whole world. Oh, and you know what else? If you have epilepsy, and frequent seizures... you don't have a driver's license. And even in the unlikely event that he had a driver's license... he wouldn't have been driving that soon after a seizure. That's one of the things that contributed to the implausibility of the ending. Had she left out the whole seizure thing all together, I would have been far less disappointed overall.

That said, I enjoyed the book, and I like the voice in which she writes. She did a fabulous job of writing from multiple perspectives (which I'm getting the impression she does a lot). If I hadn't enjoyed the book, I wouldn't have gotten another, but I was left a little bit irritated by it.

The new one I got is Vanishing Acts. I'm not very far into it, but I am once again finding myself enjoying the writing.
From: gingy Date: July 10th, 2006 03:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I like covers.

A book I am currently reading which I think is bloody fascinating is "Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History" by H.E. Jacob. Perhaps you'd also enjoy it.
estherchaya From: estherchaya Date: July 11th, 2006 12:17 am (UTC) (Link)
Oooh! thanks for the recommendation!
mabfan From: mabfan Date: July 10th, 2006 04:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Despite all the jokes, publishers often put a lot of thought into their covers. Every now and then, marketing departments will do surveys to see what appeals to readers; there was a time in the mid-1980s when everyone thought the color green would make people pick up the book, so a lot of book cover art had green hues.

In general, though, the publisher does want the book to fulfill the expectation of the cover.

But yes, the fact is that we all judge books (or the equivalent) by their covers all the time. I suppose that's why we have a maxim about not doing it.
estherchaya From: estherchaya Date: July 11th, 2006 12:18 am (UTC) (Link)
I do, of course, keep other factors in mind when choosing books. But like I said, since my interest in books can't be pinned to any specific genre, sometimes I have to rely on instinct, and covers play a large role in that.
cellio From: cellio Date: July 11th, 2006 02:49 am (UTC) (Link)
There are two orientations for a book in a bookstore: cover facing out, and spine facing out.

When covers are facing out I definitely judge books by them. I can't articulate the parameters, but certain styles and contents send strong "not interesting" vibes (certain styles of fantasy and anything that looks romancy, among others).

If the spine is facing out (which is true for most books), then the font -- size and clarity -- is the first thing that matters. With my vision, perusing a shelf of paperbacks is kind of slow and tedious, so unless I know I'm in a subsection that I really want to investigate, I sample. I don't read every title; I don't have time. If it's small or ornate or poor-contrast colors, I skip right on by. If I read a title and it (and/or author) grab me as potentially interesting I pull the book out and look at the cover, but I'm a little less dismissive than for the facing-out covers. I've already gone to the trouble to pick up the book; I'll usually look at the blurb.

So the "display" books (covers facing out) have more opportunities both to quickly grab me and to quickly turn me off. I'm more likely to miss a good book in conventional orientation, but I'm also a little less likely to dismiss it just based on a stupid cover.
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