If books should not be judged by their covers, how much more true is it that we should avoid judging people by their initial appearance?
We don’t want others to be hasty in determining who we are, right? We need to take some time to get to know people before coming to “conclusions” about what they are like.
Yet we still tend to look at someone and – right away – assess whether they are trustworthy or not. I confess it is sometimes challenging for me to maintain an open mind. For example, teardrop tattoos (especially when accompanied by neck ink that combines letters and numbers), make me nervous.
First impressions are usually by their very nature superficial. Which means they often prove to be wrong. That’s true about people . . . and books.
Lewis scholar Dale Nelson recently sent me an interesting review of the book The Inklings, written by Humphrey Carpenter in 1978. The fascinating thing about the piece was that it was written by Lord David Cecil (1902-1986), who was himself an Inkling.
One of the things which drew my attention was his physical description of several of the members, especially C.S. Lewis. Without citing the maxim, he declares how misleading first impressions may be.
[Charles] Williams was the most obviously odd. Very tall, and indisputably ugly with a high forehead and with gleaming spectacles, he yet diffused a curious charm that came from an enthusiastic warmth of spirit united to a comic lack of inhibition. . . .
Lewis at first sight appeared less unusual; stocky, red-faced, loud-voiced, he might indeed have been taken for an innkeeper or even a butcher.
Such a mistake would not have displeased him, he liked to think of himself as representing the common man, in contrast to the sophisticated intellectual.
These observations were interesting, but there was something far more thought-provoking in the (excellent, by the way) review. More about that in a moment. First let’s return for a moment to the issue of book covers.
What about the Cover of the Book You are Writing?
I discussed covers, and Lewis’ thoughts thereon, in this post.
It’s unsurprising that with all of their many reprintings, the writings of C.S. Lewis have been published with a wide range of covers. Some of this can be attributed to the artistic fads of the decade in which particular editions saw print. More important, I believe, are the arbitrary tastes of publishers.
When it comes to self-publishing, authors are in complete control over the image that graces their literary creations. While I make no pretense of being an artist, I must confess at being shocked by the shoddy quality of many such works. Surely they are aware that the very best of writing can be marred by dreadful packaging. By the same token, even weak literature has received wider dissemination than it merited, due to stunning or alluring graphics.
The internet is filled with posts on this subject. These are representative:
“Against Popular Advice, Books Continue to Be Judged by Their Covers” says, “for some, this can be a bitter pill to swallow, because writers want to believe that their work will speak for itself.”
The reality is that every person who steps into a book shop or browses books online is judging books by their cover, even if only subconsciously. I’m not saying that the judgment is always correct. Some books have amazing covers but are comprised of some pretty bad writing. I’d guess that many more amazing books are hiding behind bad cover art. The challenge is to get readers to pick up your book in the first place. That’s where the artwork comes in.
Another writer contends that potential readers do consider a host of matters. In “Why ‘Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover’ is Bad Advice,” the writer nevertheless admits it is the single most important element in winning an audience (short of a celebrity endorsement).
Readers are going to keep on reading and judging based on a whole host of criteria. The cover is just one of the many factors that are taken into account. Like other aspects of a book, it holds valuable information about the story kept inside.
Disregarding it is bad advice. Instead, why not try judging a book by its cover? Maybe next time you peruse the shelves of your neighborhood bookstore or scroll through the numerous titles listed online, you can select books purely based on the cover.
You never know, that could tell you everything you need to give that book a chance.
Covers are not the only factor in enhancing your book’s reception. Consider as well the nature of the paper in printed copies, as I discussed in “The Ugliest Book,” about a Mayan codex.
Now, back to the book reviewer.
David Cecil’s Thoughts on His Own Identity as an Inkling
After graduating from Oxford, Cecil briefly taught Rhetoric in London, before returning to Oxford, where he taught English. During his career, he wrote various works, including a number of literary biographies. These include: The Stricken Deer or The Life of Cowper, English Poets, Hardy the Novelist.
David Cecil was an accomplished man, and a true Oxford Inkling. The curious aspect is how, as the son of a marquess (bearing a courtesy title), socializing with a different caste, so to speak, would bond so well with the rest of the Inklings. Fortunately, Cecil briefly explains why he valued the fellowship in this book review.
Usually one of them would read aloud a piece from some book he was writing. . . . The meetings were also occasionally attended by persons who did not share The Inklings’ distinctive point of view but who liked spending an evening in their company.
I myself was one of these; I found such evenings enjoyable and stimulating; and all the more because the spirit of The Inklings was in piquant contrast to those of the Oxford circles in which I spent most of my time.
A final gift to those who treasure Lewis and his companions comes in Cecil’s incisive understanding of their unifying bond.
The qualities . . . that gave The Inklings their distinctive personality were not primarily their opinion; rather it was a feeling for literature, which united, in an unusual way, scholarship and imagination.
Their standard of learning was very high. To study a book in translation or without a proper knowledge of its historic background would have been to them unthinkable; they were academic in the best sense of the word.
But – and this is what made them different from most academics – they also read imaginatively. The great books of the past were to them living in the same way as the work of a contemporary. . . .
Simply they read their books in the spirit in which they were written. And they could communicate their sense of this spirit to their hearers so that, for these also, these great books sprang to fresh, full life.
This was a unique achievement in the Oxford of their time.
It appears the Inklings would be among the last to judge a book, or a person, by their cover.