Posted in Of Culturel

Of Judging A Book By Its Cover

Penguin's Little Black Classics
Penguin Little Black Classics

I have a problem, people. I recently came across the Penguin Little Black Classics box set, one that contains 80 black books in a white cardboard case, and is actually reasonably priced. And I want it.

Even though, I cannot justify it. First, I don’t have the space to store them. Second, most, if not all the titles on this little mammoth collection are out of copyright, barring the translated texts which Penguin always does well. Third, I don’t really need it, because I am always buying books I actually do need. But, oh, the packaging. The packaging.

I even found out there is a Mini Modern Classics box set that came out a while ago, which tempts me further because those texts won’t be out of copyright. But, plenitude of tempting options isn’t the point. It is the simple, progressively rarefied case of wanting to buy a book because of the physical aesthetic it satisfies in you, which you could have easily justified by saying you’re more interested in what’s inside. I lust over those little black books more because of what’s outside. Is that wrong of me?

I can’t exactly rue like some people do over not buying physical books from a physical shop in an unforgivably long time. I was in a shop last month, and I bought a couple from a shop the month before. I even bought a Penguin title earlier this year from a shop, the hilarious Sylvester by Georgette Heyer. But, I’ve rarely, if ever, allowed myself to be bended into monetary submission by packaging. I don’t do box sets or hardbacks or cute or leather-bound covers.

First of all, I can’t. I buy too many. I have a scattered attention span, which means I’m always reading multiple books. I rarely read blurbs, or remember author names while I’m reading if they are ones I’ve never heard of before. And I never, never read the last page. I know this sounds totally obnoxious, and probably against the grain of book bloggers across the galaxy, but I have a very modest defence for it: I’d rather buy the cheaper edition and get more books on the same budget, than the costlier edition. I’ve never let any book escape me because of its packaging, and perhaps that might redeem me to authors.

But, this box set is so contradictory! The price actually doesn’t deter me at all, it’s having too much of a good thing, especially when I don’t have the means to house it. Perhaps, I could have given some away as gifts, but people rarely read dead-tree books. Probably, most that do are book bloggers or Goodreads listers, but lately whoever I’ve gifted books to, have let them sit while they read on their devices.

Some compare physical books to vinyl. I never got to reasonably experience it so I can’t compare, except for one thing – I really wish physical books don’t become luxuries or rarities. Even if I have no place to store them, I’d still like to believe that I can easily pick them up in the next five or ten years. Even a cheap, second-hand paperback with brownish-yellow pages is still an experience that adds to the overall reading of a book. There is something about having this little, turnable, bendable object with its distinct smell, particular font, page numbers that adds a sensuousness to the emotional experience of what it intrinsically contains, that you don’t find reading on a device. You remember it.

It makes me sad that books with movie tie-ins that generally adhere to the YA genre are the majority of physical books available in a shop, while cheap, bleak-looking paperbacks that actually are well-written and not pulpy are increasingly becoming extinct. I am not valuing one over the other, I miss the possibility of both existing simultaneously even five years ago in the same physical space. Finding a bookstore that doesn’t smell of coffee is even rarer, but I’d rather have them with coffee, as long as they have different genres of books with a greater number of titles.

I know all this is very geographically and culturally distinct but somehow, at least in literatures in the English language, there has come to exist an unimaginative formula when it comes to publishing and marketing books. Book blogging has certainly helped in bringing young people back to books, and if there is attractive packaging/affordable ebooks to draw them in, why not? But, there are other markets, or let’s say, other kinds of readers that might also be successfully enticed were there more such products, like the Little Black Classics. It even seduced me, though I found out about it from a YA booktuber.

I might not get the box set, because it is too, overwhelmingly good, but I’m sure I will get many new books, both new and used, in the coming months, that will probably fill up the very same space I find myself wanting now. There is even a likelihood of the majority of them being Penguin books. They might even sit more prettily than the box set, but they won’t fulfil that editorial and aesthetic concept that makes this box set admirable. They’d only be new members in my ragtag gang of books, waiting to be devoured.

Do you judge a book by its cover?


Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

17 thoughts on “Of Judging A Book By Its Cover

  1. I know what you mean about your love of physical books for I share it. I am also loathe to get rid of books, even if they are not complete favorites. If it wasn’t enjoyable I may part with it. Something that happens sometimes here in NY is people will leave books on a subway seat or a bar when you are done with them, available for the next potential reader. I experimented with a tablet once to see if I might enjoy it. While I love the technology, I love the tactile nature of the book and I love the way you describe it. Budget prevents me from buying new books by my favorite authors so usually I have to wait for the paperback. In between I scour thrift shops and second hand book stores for interesting books and classics. In the last few years I have become enamored of reading Agatha Christie books (especially the Poirot series). Though when I am at the bookstore I love those nice shiny new editions, when it comes to someone like her, I think I would rather those dusty old, yellow paged mass market editions of Death On The Nile than something newer. It just feels like as a reader I can make a better connection with the words by doing so. Now a new Paul Auster, Jonathan Coe, or Kate Atkinson (to name 3 of my favorite contemporary writers) I will hope to get new for Christmas or my birthday, and I will relish having them bright and sparkly!

    But…I do have to add here that you need to treat yourself once in awhile and not think about things. That tactile element really is important, and seeing those books in order in a nice box set is a special thing. I do buy vinyl records, sometimes even new pressings of them, but lately I have also been trying to up my box sets for music. The economic value is often exceptional and I put them all in pride of place in my music collection. It isn’t a status thing for me for visitors to see-Oh he has all those Little Feat albums, how cool, or the complete Johnny Cash Columbia collection (62 CD’s!). It is instead a reminder of how important music is in my life whenever I walk by them. I enjoy opening up the case and perusing the titles and reading the notes. It reminds me of why I like music. The same can obviously be said about you and books. Treat yourself to something that makes you happy!

    1. I should, shouldn’t I? Well, I did buy a relatively expensive journal earlier this week that I never would have! I just never find it necessary to correlate packaging with what excites me, when it comes to books. I might consider a more expensive edition if it contains additional material – like the Norton editions for classics. But, I remember struggling to buy books on a budget as an undergrad – with no huge discounts, online shopping, and copyrighted ebooks. For example, I desperately wanted to read James Joyce’s A Portrait, but could not imagine getting the Penguin Modern Classic edition. Therefore, I went for a cheap one because all I cared about was the text. A couple of years later, I did get the Penguin Modern for Joyce’s Ulysses, and both felt equally valuable to me. Again, not trying to be obnoxious, but honestly admitting it would be difficult to part with either for me, and not because of the disparity in price and quality. For me, treating myself with books generally means buying a whole lot of them!

      And 62 CD box set of Johnny Cash…that should be kept safely hidden in a nuclear-proof container. I’d maybe allow myself The Beatles one, but I already have them individually!

      1. I understand the dilemma. I also struggle with special editions, remasters and expanded CD’s by my favorite bands. Though I like things to sound great on my stereo , I’m glad I’m not an audiophile. I know people who are and it isn’t enough for them to have the Beatles White Album (to choose one example). They also buy the remasters, and sometimes even the expanded versions with outtakes or what have you. I’d rather have one copy that sounds great, and use all that other money to buy other music, but they do because the sound quality is extremely important to them. So when it comes to something like the Johnny Cash I bought it because I became more deeply interested in the man and his music, and also because a lot of those Columbia albums will never be released on CD because they are pretty inconsistent. So I was happy to just have them forever though maybe the nuclear proof container is a good call! I love my book and music collections. I spend a lot of time looking at them. Pulling things out that I haven’t in awhile. I will never go digital with books I realized, and though I listen to music now mostly via my Ipod, I still listen at home on my stereo. To a record, to the CD, and even to the hundred or so cassettes I still own. For books there is nothing so special as perusing through your books. Reading notes you scribbled in them (in the case of school books), and scrolling through the pages, recounting your favorite passages. I treasure that, and though I thin out my collection on occasion, I have hundreds of books that will always be with me. Sounds like a handsomely bound volume of books is something you will treat the same way πŸ™‚ GO FOR IT!

      2. I do have to make time to buy a couple of books I need urgently. Will get them from a real shop, and maybe something of a treat! I want to read Beatlebone by Kevin Barry. Have you read it? Also, you must have seen Walk The Line, the movie. Did you like it? I thought it is one of the few music biopics that actually was good, even though I don’t know how dedicated fans took it. I personally think Joaquin Phoenix can never hit a wrong note in his acting, and this was no different.

      3. Have not read Beatlebone but I will look it up now. I did see and enjoy Walk The Line when it came out, but recently when I saw it on TV, it seemed like a Made For TV movie…a phrase that over here makes it seem like a not very well researched or coherent movie. Watching it again I thought it didn’t hold up so well. Plus after reading Robert Hilburn’s excellent bio of Cash I felt like the movie glossed over a lot of stuff and did not focus on things that were arguably more interesting. I’m saying this but understand that I don’t think you could have gotten anyone better than Joaquin Phoenix to play him. It was inspired casting, it just was not so enjoyable the second time around. If you are even remotely interested in Johnny Cash I recommend that book. In a totally different vein, have you ever come across The Rotter’s Club by Jonathan Coe? Great book about 1970’s Birmingham, England with lots of musical references.

      4. No, but will have to look for it now! I hope those music references are glam and not prog. All I know about Johnny Cash’s bio is the book that’s mentioned in High Fidelity. Wasn’t there an autobiography? I think Johnny Cash himself approved on Joaquin. I’ve seen many of his other films, of which The Master kept me thinking for days. He is probably the best, but most underrated actor of his generation.
        A new Hank Williams movie is coming out, with Tom Hiddleston of the Avengers films playing him. Let’s see how it goes.

      5. Johnny wrote a few autobiographies actually, but as Hilburn writes there are a number of tall tales that Johnny would relate about his life, and drugs and things that were almost certainly not true. One instance where he wandered alone in a cave and gave up drugs for good is definitely not true for example. But it’s not a hatchet job by any means. He knew and loves Johnny Cash but he just wanted to paint him in a more real light. The Rotter’s Club was an album by the group Hatfield and the North, who I think you would call experimental. I’ve actually never heard their music though. The book is just interesting because it weaves between these guys going to school, massive unemployment and car strikes in that part of England, and politics like the IRA. I think it is a great read. I would agree with you on Phoenix’s talents. Haven’t seen everything by him but he has presence, he stands out with what he does, more than a lot of other actors.

  2. I agree with Robert Doyle–treat yourself to something nice πŸ˜€ And I do sometimes judge a book by its cover, but rarely anymore these days. I have, in the past, read my fair share of books with enticing covers with not-so-enticing words on the inside. Thank goodness I am able to download free chapter samples on my Kindle so that I can decide if it is a book I am willing to pay money for.

    1. That is spot on! I’m glad previews come with books online. In a physical shop, I go through the book by reading the first few pages, because that gives me a greater sense of whether I’ll enjoy it than the blurb. I guess it’s my personal aesthetic (after all, I’m lusting after books that are just two colours), but “enticing” covers work in the opposite direction for me. For example, I preferred the 90s edition of the Harry Potter books to the more colourful ones that came out later. I abhor movie tie-ins. I have only one I didn’t mind, because it had one my favourite actors in one of his best performances!

      I remember you wrote a hilarious post a while back about a book haul, where you bought a book because it had a crow on the cover! Did it live up to its potential?

      1. I do have a weak spot for crows on the covers of books. I have no idea why! And I did buy that book but found it had way too many POVs to my liking and the first half started off too slow. It was fantasy, so a lot of world building and I ended up getting bored with it. Just wasn’t my cup of tea, is all. Maybe one day I’ll get around to finishing the other half.

      2. I can’t remember the name, but I once read a poem about a crow in translation by a classic poet. I’ll look it up and send you a link, if I can find it. Interesting choice of bird, I must say!

      3. Now that I think about it, many books on my shelf have crows or ravens or just the wings of a bird on the covers. Ha ha! I even bought “A Game of Thrones” the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin because there was a blasted crow on it! (The edition of the book I had bought had the T.V. show cover on it and it had a crow perched on the throne next to the actor who played Ned Stark. One tiny little crow, but that was all it took for me to purchase the book!)

      4. You’d enjoy a recent episode on Doctor Who then, called “Face the Raven” where an important character [spoiler alert for Whovians who haven’t seen it!] dies. They do have a long tradition in storytelling for depicting something ominous.

    1. I completely agree. Even for textbooks, i.e. material you need to understand well and remember, it is better to have your own physical copies and make notes, than on a device. And a library ambience, of whatever scale, surely must put you in the mood for reading and discovering more. I don’t understand why some ebook readers are marketed towards children, especially when they are the main age group who’ll learn to enjoy and develop the habit of reading from physical books.

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