“The Clothing of Books” by Jhumpa Lahiri

This small book, adapted and translated into English (by her own husband) from a speech given by Jhumpa Lahiri in Italian, may be small, but it’s a lovely read – especially for big Lahiri fans like myself. I ordered this book from Amazon last week, it arrived on Thursday and I read it that very evening before bed. The next day I went to a work party and minutes after I arrived who do I see walk in the door? Jhumpa Lahiri! I freaked out. My boyfriend tried to calm me down and most people had no idea why I was so excited. While I had the immense pleasure of meeting her a year ago at an event and we briefly spoke, seeing someone whose works have brought me to tears, have made me laugh, and have meant so much to me is so special. It’s not lost on me the immense privilege of being in a world where this sort of occurrence is even remotely possible – especially for someone who used to live in a trailer, whose love of books were the only escape, and who didn’t envision ever getting out of out of town, let alone one day traveling the world and rubbing shoulders with Pulitzer Prize winning writers. Life is really great sometimes…

the-clothing-of-books

But I digress. Let’s talk about the book. The title suggests the topic presented which is very important to Lahiri: the book cover. One of the most ubiquitous idioms thrown about in everyday conversation is to not judge a book by its cover. Yet that is exactly what everyone does. This thought caused Lahiri to reflect on the ways in which her own books are presented to the readers of the world. Once the book is complete the work of the author is pretty much done. The work no longer belongs to him/her and is now public property. I was somewhat surprised to learn that the author doesn’t get much say in the way their book is “clothed”, and if they have some status and power they can approve or deny a cover, but it’s mostly up to the publishing house. This does make some sense, especially given the fact that the publishers know how they wish to market the book, what audience they intend to reach, and what immediate impression they wish to evoke. But what happens when these decisions do not align with the content? Or with what the author had in mind when writing the book? Also, the book cover that may have been chosen for one country is usually never the same across borders.

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Jhumpa Lahiri

We know we shouldn’t judge, but we all do – even the authors judge their own book covers. Lahiri even hints that there is one cover of one of her books that causes a violent reaction of loathing, though she is careful not to disclose which one. I know I have chosen books based on the cover, for I know that certain types of covers have come to signify the kinds of books I love to read or those I usually avoid. If there are hearts, knives, or overly detailed covers I know that the book belongs to a genre I pass over. I’ve come to find that literary fiction, my genre of choice, tends to showcase fairly simple and non-intricate covers – the focus is on the author and the title, the rest is less important. I also avoid like the plague the book covers that show the actors or the poster of the film/tv adaptation. I do not want to be reminded that the work I’m reading has been ruined by Hollywood (even when it doesn’t suck, it’s never really as good, is it?)

While it’s not the most original topic and there are studies dedicated to this specific phenomenon, I still enjoyed reading Lahiri’s thoughts. I love her writing, which I find singular and pensive, every word (even in translation, because I couldn’t get my hands on the original Italian version) is meticulously chosen and deliberate. Fans of the author should pick it up, as it gives us another layer of the writer and makes us feel like we know her just a little bit more. This applies to even those of us lucky enough to have met her in person.

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