Books: Essay

Dressing up the Book

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We are never alone together, the text and I

The Clothing of Books | Jhumpa Lahiri | Hamish Hamilton | Rs 199 | Pages 71

LET’S MOVE IN a different direction and speak of the naked book.

I did not own many books as a girl. I would go to the library, where books were often undressed: without jackets or any images. I would find only hardcovers, and the pages that they contained.

I am the daughter of a librarian, and I too worked for many years in the public library where I grew up, from which I used to borrow books. I know that it is costly, also challenging, to protect the covers of volumes that will be read repeatedly by many. Book jackets are easily damaged and, even though there are ways to protect them—with plastic covers, for example— it is always easier to strip them. Hardcovers are made specifically to live in a library, while paperback pocket editions are more temporary.

I have read hundreds of books, almost all the literature of my schooling, without a summary blurb on the flap, without an author photograph. They had an anonymous quality, secretive. They gave nothing away in advance. To understand them, you had to read them.

The authors I loved at the time were embodied only by their words. The naked cover doesn’t interfere. My first reading happened outside of time, ignorant of the market, of current events. The part of me that regards book jackets with suspicion seeks to rediscover that experience.

When I purchase a book today, I acquire a range of other things: a picture of the author, biographical information, reviews. All of this complicates matters. It causes confusion. It distracts me. I hate reading the comments on the cover; it is to them that we owe one of the most repugnant words in the English language: blurb. Personally, I think it deplorable to place the words and opinions of others on the book jacket. I want the first words read by the reader of my book to be written by me.

I hate reading the comments on the cover; it is to them that we owe one of the most repugnant words in the English language: Blurb

Today the relationship between reader and book is far more mediated, with a dozen people buzzing around. We are never alone together, the text and I. I miss the silence, the mystery of the naked book: solitary, without support. It allows one to read in freedom, without previews or introductions. I believe that a naked book, too, can stand on its own feet.

Unfortunately it can’t be sold that way. Almost no one wants to buy something unknown, not even a book, without prior information. In some ways today’s reader resembles a tourist who, thanks to the guidebooks—this is, thanks to the impact of the book jacket—begins to inform and orient himself before disembarking in an unknown place. Before discovering it, before being there. Before reading.

The bound galleys of my first book published in the United States resembled a naked book to some degree. No image, just essential information. There was something generic rather than individual about them. In the past, when I would go on tour to promote a book, I would read from the bound galleys. When I was forced to use a copy of the actual book, I would remove the jacket. As I have said, the dressed book no longer belongs to me.

Sixteen years ago in America, when my first collection of stories was about to be released, critics and bookstore owners received imageless bound galleys. Why? Perhaps because even the publishing house, at the time, wanted the advance copies to be pristine, without added distractions or noise, hence without a jacket. This seems right.

These days, unfortunately, even the bound galleys contain what to me is superfluous information. The galleys of my last novel list the size of the printing run, my previous prizes and honors, and the titles of my other books. No matter how “essential” it appears, the packaging seems rigged somehow. I thought that the final cover was not there, but leafing through the galley, I came across a reproduction of it on the first page, followed by the flap copy. It was all there, just slightly hidden. There is no escape. For me, there are no more naked books.

(Excerpted from The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri (Hamish Hamilton; Rs 199; Pages 71)