Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ugly books

Gradually, I realized that the books I had put off reading for so long were united not by being too demanding or too turgid but by the fact that their covers literally screamed: "Pulp me! Pulp me!"
Joe Queenan, One for the Books

OK, so maybe the covers of Joe Queenan's unread books didn't literally scream. The gist of his statement is that he did, in fact, judge books by their covers. The ugly ones he left on the shelf for another time. This makes sense to me. Just as we are more likely to eat food that looks good to us, so we are more likely to read books that appeal to the eye.

This may be more true in bookstores than in one's personal library. Given a choice between a book with an attractive cover and one with a bland cover, I will buy the former almost every time. I love holding beautiful books in my hands and seeing beautiful books on my shelves.

Self-published books, as if they didn't have enough problems gaining readership to begin with, have the added disadvantage, in most cases, of unsightly covers. If their cover illustrations look amateurish, that's because they probably are. Few self-published authors are willing to pay the additional cost of a first-rate cover design.

Some books may have had attractive covers when they were published, but those covers have deteriorated over time, making the books less appealing to read. I own a first edition of the Richard Adams novel The Girl on a Swing that had a torn dust jacket when I bought it used. In the years since the cover has only gotten worse. Every time I consider reading it, the sight of it turns me off. If I read it, I would remove that dust jacket, but even then the hardback cover is soiled. So, like Joe Queenan, I will probably keep passing on this ugly book.

The ugliest cover may be no cover at all. Retailers tear the covers off paperback books and return them to the publisher for a refund. Then they are supposed to destroy the books themselves. Years ago a discount store in my town had a bin of coverless paperbacks selling for a dime each. I bought a couple, including Cancer Ward by Alekesandr Solzhenitsyn. Soon after we left for a week of camping in Michigan, and that fat, ugly paperback seemed like the perfect book to take along. If not for that camping trip, I probably would have never read Cancer Ward.

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