Judging a Book by Its Cover

Picture this: you’re in a bookstore, surrounded by the greatest works of hundreds of authors. You are intent on buying a new work to add to your collection and won’t be leaving this store without a new volume. The only problem? You have never heard of these authors or their books before and have no idea where to begin searching. What do you do? The answer for some, like me, is to find the book with the most interesting cover and go from there.

Analyzing a book by its cover and physical dimensions is not something that people are encouraged to do. In fact, we are often told to not judge books by their covers and focus on the content first. As a result, the physical qualities that make up a book are overlooked and underappreciated. In The Book, the author, Amaranth Borsuk, addresses the imbalance in focus when it comes to analyzing a book, saying “even though innumerable material elements come together to make the book, these features have been naturalized to such a degree that we now hardly notice them, since we have come to see content as the copyrightable, consumable, marketable aspect of the work” (Borsuk 109).

I’ll admit that it’s not always my first instinct to analyze the physical makeup of a book, but by ignoring the uniqueness of the book’s appearance, we do lose some of the experience that comes with reading the piece. So, to examine first-hand the appearance of a book and evaluate it as an object, I chose to look at Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

© Leaves of Grass / Photo by Penguin Classics

The book itself is relatively thin and lightweight. As this is the first edition of Whitman’s work, it is significantly smaller than some of the later editions I have encountered. The book is a standard size and blends in with many of the other books on my shelf. The cover is divided into two noticeable sections: the cover art and the publisher and author information. The cover art is rather striking, even though it is done in black and white. We see a man, presumably the author, lying in a field of tall grass. Behind him, you can see mountains and cliffs along with a body of water. The man has a few blades, or leaves, of grass in his hand and appears to be examining them. The image conveys a sort of serenity and contemplation, something that the book’s contents also examine at different points. Below the picture is a big black bar with the author’s name and the title of the work. At the top of the bar appears the publisher’s name. This black bar with the name of the publishing company is a common design that is applied to all the “Penguin Classic” books I have encountered. The texture of the cover is matte, giving the book a rougher, almost rugged feel. There is a big difference for me between glossy covers and matte covers, and I find the matte covers much more appealing to touch. The slightly yellowed pages have an almost gritty quality to them. In my copy, the pages are dogeared and wrinkled in some spots, indicating that the book has spent some time being tossed around in my backpack. The smell of the pages is my favorite part of any book. There is something so alluring about the smell of fresh paper and the glue that holds the pages together. In this book, the scent has faded with time, but I can still smell traces of it.

After a thorough evaluation of the book, I can come to one resounding conclusion: it is alright to judge a book by its cover sometimes. The physical build of the book can speak volumes, but only if we allow ourselves to listen to what it has to say.

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. MIT Press, 2018.

2 thoughts on “Judging a Book by Its Cover”

  1. Nice observations. Personally, I love Penguin Classics – partly for that sleek-but-comfy feeling that you describe. Of course, you have opened a whole can of worms – of editions – with your particular choice of book! Whitman published several editions of Leaves of Grass, and the way the poem mutated throughout his life, and with the look and feel of each edition, is a super fascinating study. The first edition is green and “rugged”–yet intricate–and practically alive…it is practically a plant. Check it out at The Walt Whitman Archive, here: https://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1855/whole.html. Compare it with the Penguin Classic, and with the other editions that they have in the archive. What do you think?


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