By Gail Allison
In response to Michele Gorman's post about finding the right look for her latest book.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover!” I would bet money that all of us have heard that old chestnut at least a few times in our life. If I cringed away from something different or unknown at any point, my mother was sure to trot that phrase out. Apparently she was unable to discern the taste of brussel sprouts with the power of her vision, the way I absolutely could when I was 6. Or 25. Whichever. In any case, judging a book by its cover has always been the idiomatic epitome of wielding an uninformed opinion.
Or has it? We use sight every day to make snap decisions about things. In his book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”, Malcolm Gladwell discusses “thin-slicing”: the ability that people unconsciously have to make quick and spontaneous decisions that many times end up being better than slowly rationalized and drawn-out choices. I think this absolutely plays into something as simple as the cover art of a novel. I believe that it all stems back to being fully and completely engaged with that book, not just enjoying the content.
If I see a drab, grey-covered book that’s not visually stimulating, I’m not likely to be drawn to it unless there’s something in it that I know is incredibly fascinating to me. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up to read it in the first place. Where’s the excitement? I will, however, pick up the bright orange-jacketed novel with the beachscape and shark in the water and two pairs of footprints in the sand and red-striped bikini top lying discarded in the sand. Why? Because without even picking up that orange book, I want to know what it’s all about. I’m drawn in. I’m involved. I’ve started forming questions about the characters and situations (Why are they walking away from the water? Have they seen the shark? Does she know she left her bikini top behind?) before I’ve even picked the book up. (Also, this is not a real book that I’ve just described, but if anyone wants to write it, I will TOTALLY read it.)
That’s not to say that I discount the blurb on the back of the book. It’s also not to say that I won’t try a gray-jacketed book, or that I’m not swayed by all the opinions I hear every day. All of those things are true as well. However, I’m more likely to pick up a novel that engages me before I’ve even read a word of it than not. Why else are classic, popular novels run through multiple printings and multiple iterations of cover art? They’re bestsellers, sure, but they still need to stand out. When you walk into your local bookstore, how many books are on the wall? Two thousand? Ten thousand? That cover art on nearly every novel is doing all it can to either catch your eye or tell part of the story that lies beneath it. Either way, the cover art is what you see first, before you notice the title, the author, and WAY before you settle into your deck chair with a margarita and read the first paragraph.
Don’t judge a book by its cover? It absolutely applies in some cases. Financial investments? Yeah...you maybe don’t want to just throw your life savings at the slick-looking banker in the pinstripe suit. Cell phone plans? You’ll probably want to check out the fine print before signing away the next 3 years of your calling and texting life. But books? If the cover’s intriguing, that’s enough to make me pick it up and take a closer look. You know what another great idiom is? Do what makes you happy. Don’t expect every fabulously designed cover to hold an absolute gem that you’ll read three times a year, but hey: does a delicious-looking book make you happy? If your answer is yes, give it a chance! You never know what you’ll stumble across!!