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.

Passion for the Press

© Photo by Bayonet Media

In today’s age of technology, very little thought goes into the process of printing. A document is sent to an in-home printer and it is available almost immediately. No prolonged thought, no human touch, no uniqueness. Everything uniform and identical. The art behind the assembly is lost and the human connection with it.

One of the things I found so interesting about the film was the immense passion and dedication that those who were doing letterpress work had for their work. These people from all different backgrounds and levels of experience are all spending their extra time and money to pursue a field which, due to the availability of other cheaper and easier printing options, has all but disappeared from the public eye.

So what makes it so appealing? Why would someone devote such a huge chunk of their free time and money to pursuing a field that is dying? I think the answer was very accurately delivered in the film. People love letterpress because it is part of history. By preserving the machines and techniques, the history is kept alive for new generations to study and grow to love. On top of the historical preservation, letterpress provides a unique artistic outlet. Every piece is unique due to the craft’s dependence on artist assembly, and each piece is a wholly new work of art.

Convenience and speed are necessary for some situations, but the art created with hard work and dedicated attention to detail in hand-printing makes letterpress appealing for both the consumer and the artist. For consumers, letterpress pieces provide a uniqueness and sense of historical value that has become desirable. As for the letterpress artists, the process provides a wonderful outlet for creativity. In the film, one of the printers described her experience with letterpress, saying “when I first tried letterpress, I was intrigued ‘cause it meant I got to get my hands a little dirtier…you might be worn out by the end of it and that was great” (Pressing On: The Letterpress Film).

For the difficulty and time it may take, letterpress offers an interesting alternative to automatic printing that both preserves the past and allows artists to express their passions.

“Pressing On: The Letterpress Film.” Pressing On: The Letterpress Film, http://www.letterpressfilm.com.

Silent Study

Painting by Jean-Baptiste August Leloir of Homer telling a story

I can’t remember the exact last time I read out loud outside of a class. All my reading is done in silence and completely alone so that I can avoid distraction. On top of that, any reading that I have done recently tends to only contain required reading for classwork with little to no time on reading for personal enrichment or entertainment.

I think the last time I read out loud may have been when I was a camp counselor and the kids wanted me to read to them from the books I carried with me to read alone in my down time. I’d gather the group and read them whatever I had, usually a Harry Potter book. If for some reason I wasn’t carrying a book that day, I would create a story for them on the spot.

Now, having read Borges’ article aloud and silently to myself, it’s easy for me to understand the difference in the way I relate to the text. When I read to myself, the text is just words on a page. Sure, I can derive meaning from Borges’ words and gain a more complex understanding of his topic, but something is lost in the silence. When the words are read aloud, the text becomes more personal. Yes, the words are not mine, but in the moment, I am the “storyteller.” The words don’t just exist on paper anymore but are spoken into a new sense of reality. It’s the same with my readings of Harry Potter at day camp. The world of the novel doesn’t change if I’m reading silently to myself, nor does the plot, but when the story is read out loud, it gains a new reality, a sense that this story was something meant to be passed along in spoken existence.

In Borges’ article, he includes a quote from St. Augustine in which he talks about his teacher, Ambrose and his silent reading habits. Augustine says, “we wondered if [Ambrose] read silently perhaps to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested and intent on the matter, to whom he might have to expound the text being read if it contained difficulties…If his time were used up in that way, he would get through fewer books than he wished…Whatever motive he had for his habit, this man had a good reason for what he did” (St. Augustine. “Book VI.” Confessions.) Augustine assumes that Ambrose has good reason for silence in his studies but writes later that he was still troubled by the thought of a man reading silently to himself.

For modern readers, silent reading is often the only kind of reading we partake in, but for readers like Augustine, silent reading was unusual. So why did we choose to shift from the oral storytelling of our ancestors to silent reading by ourselves? I assume we choose silence because silence is more convenient and less work, but in silence we lose some of the impact of written work. Written words for our ancestors were meant to be shared with one another in a communal setting. Stories were the glue that held civilizations together and helped to separate us from animals. Cavemen shared their stories aloud, aided by painted pictures inside their caves, the ancient Greeks used theater to tell their legends and myths, minstrels sang ballads for the courts of medieval kings. Today, we get many of our stories in silence, and the extent of the meaning and impact is lost on us.