I’ve been asked to review a book, for a gender studies journal. When I received the book in the mail, and opened up the package, I could feel my face twisting into a frown. Here’s an image of the cover:
A few days later, I was leaving the house and was looking for some train reading. This book is small, so I grabbed it. But, then, I appeared in my own mind’s eye: a nerdy looking lady on the subway, wearing a a fluffy white mohair jacket and reading a book with this cover. I didn’t like it. So I removed the dust jacket and put the book in my bag.
When I review this book, I will not address the cover. I will unpack the presumptions that are embedded in the title. And I will point to the qualifications the authors make, in the introduction, regarding these presumptions. I will address the book’s scholarship. That is what a book review should do. And that is what I will do.
But can I just vent about this cover, about book covers in general, for a second here?
There is, frankly, no way that my reading of this book will not be affected by the initial – physical – reaction that I had when I saw the cover. There’s no way that my reading won’t be affected by the sensationalist combination of colors on the cover. These are news magazine colors (red, black, white). They signal a mix of objectivity and alarm. They seem to make the title’s unhelpfully broad and essentializing central question (“why are women more religious than men?”) less a speculative query to be investigated and more a statement of fact (“women are more religious than men!”). And then there are all the cues about race, religion, and age, that are shrouding the choice of image. I’ve tried not to think about the cover, and to focus on the scholarship. But the more I try not to think about it, the more fascinating this cover becomes.
The injunction that we should never judge a book by its cover is, I think, one of the most worthless cliches in the English language. I’m just going to put myself on the line and say that I always judge a book by its cover. To be sure, my judgements are not simple and never amount to something like “approval” vs. “disapproval.” And, of course, the cover is never the only thing I take into account. But, ultimately, these allegedly superficial cues are extremely important and are loaded with information. They tell you something about the press, about the target audience. And they even begin to gesture towards subterranean aspects of the argument or the central concern. Or, in the more unfortunate cases, they twist and malign some aspect of the argument.
You know what I think would be interesting? An academic journal that asks scholars to review books based solely on the covers. Reviewers would be asked to avoid reading the book itself and would be asked to use their background in the field to compile a series of intuitive and speculative pre-judgements of the text in question. Other academics could make reference to this journal, as one of host of resources that they use to cull information about new work in the field. Everyone would be aware of the absurd and speculative nature of these reviews. But I really don’t think this would make them less valuable as sources of insight and critique.
I don’t know, readers, am I wrong? Can you show me a cover that has so little to say about the book that I’ll want to retract my claims? Alternately, can you show me some wonderful/terrible/fortuitous/unfortunate cover that will distract my attention from this one?