Friday, January 3, 2014

Judging Books by Their Covers

Discussion Topic: Judging Books by Their Covers 

The phrase "don't judge a book by its cover" has become so common it's used as a metaphor even outside of book-related topics, but is judging covers really such a terrible crime? Over the years, I have heard countless people claim they never fall into this pitfall, but I am of the opinion that everyone judges books by their covers.

Of course, that's a broad statement. In reality, I imagine this habit on a kind of sliding scale where some people consciously set down books whose covers they dislike and others are moved by tendencies so subtle that they don't notice them. The fact remains that something made you pick up that book from all the others.

If you were looking for that specific book, this debate doesn't really apply, but what if you weren't? If you were browsing? Then why that book rather than all the others? Maybe it was an interesting title, but perhaps the title is big enough to catch your attention, or in a font you particularly like. Perhaps you like the color: bold, soft, simple white, your favorite, or even an unusually complicated design. Maybe you recognize the cover or title - whether because you've seen images in advertising or the designers deliberately went for a familiar theme. This is exactly why "faced out" books have such an advantage in a bookstore. (For those who don't know, that refers to books with their covers facing out on shelves while most of the others show only their spines.) People notice covers more than spines!

If you think you never judge books by their covers, I suggest you take a careful look at your bookshelf. I'm surprised by how worked up some people get about this topic (no doubt because judging books by covers has a negative connotation especially as a metaphor for judging something else at first glance, like people). Of the people I know who insist the strongest that they never do this, most prefer literary fiction. So I showed them some of their favorite covers compared to genre fiction. There are themes within the design. Literary is usually more simplistic and sometimes more abstract.  When selecting a new read, a reader is likely to gravitate towards covers they find similar to their favorite books. (And, yes, this carries over as a metaphor. People gravitate towards people that seem similar...which is how prejudice pops up in environments where no one seems overtly prejudiced. Sometimes it's not malicious; it's subconscious and about staying within a comfort zone.)

To be clear, I'm not encouraging judging books by their covers. I fully agree that a book with a cover I love could turn out to be a terrible read and vice versa. You have to read the book to judge the book. What I take issue with is pretending we don't notice covers. (Yes, again, this lines up with my beliefs outside the book world. Pretending prejudice isn't there only worsens the problem.) 

I also think it's a little insulting to graphic designers: pretending people don't notice book covers. Why, then, can individuals make a career out of designing covers? I do want to mention that in most cases the author has little to no say in this matter, but ideally the cover should capture the essence of the book. Speaking generally, genre books often have similar design elements as their "peers" to help pull in those particular readers. More specifically, the cover can showcase some of the major characters, settings, themes in a book in an effort to attract readers interested in those things.

We are taught that "judging a book by its cover" is a terrible sin, especially for avid booklovers (who should know better!). Yet urging people not to judge the cover of a book is urging them not to be human. (The only people who probably don't judge books by covers are the blind.) Basic human psychology tells us that we react differently to different visual stimuli. Any competent artist or graphic designer knows this. If people didn't judge books by their covers, those designers would be out of a job!

So next time you're browsing for a good read and pick up a book at random, take a moment and ask yourself what drew you to that book. The cover? The title? Perhaps you always go third shelf down, eighth book to the right? Maybe ask yourself what other judgments you might be making based on the cover. Of course, before finalizing any conclusions…read the book!

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