Judging the Contents by the Cover

10 Dec

Don’t judge a book by its cover, so we’re told. But how often have you been attracted to a book or an album, purely on the basis of its cover? Did you buy it without having read or listened to any of it? And did you come to regret it? There was a time, of course, when you couldn’t hear an album before buying it. You couldn’t read a tenth of a book before making up your mind about it. It’s not even twenty years ago, but it seems unimaginable now.  The internet has so utterly transformed our experience of the world.

Man strides through his high-tech world but he remains at heart a primitive creature. Although I don’t share the conservative implications of evolutionary psychology, I do believe it offers a powerful explanation of the way that we behave. The human psyche developed over hundreds of thousands of years and snap decisions played an important part in this. Survival depended upon them in less ‘civilised’ times (the term is used advisedly here, in the light of the last two thousand years of human history). Many of our modes of thinking and acting were evolved for the Savannah and not the city. Is that member of another human group hostile or friendly? Will he fly or fight? You have two seconds to read his face. Does that silhouette belong to a cave bear? There are five seconds in which to retreat to safety behind the fire. These days, the big predators are either extinct or safely behind bars in zoos, relegated to our subconscious. Only the microscopic ones inside our bodies still provide a threat. Those and ourselves, of course, with our dangerous machines and materials, our conflicts and violent crime… In these man-made contexts – crossing the road, deciding whether or not to walk down an unlit alleyway at night, entering a shattered building in a war zone – snap judgements remain essential.

A column of cotton-wool clouds

A column of cotton-wool clouds

It’s surprising how often snap judgements still prove useful in a variety of other contexts. As mentioned, I’ve found this to be the case with two important things in my life, music and reading. Sometimes, the cover of an album or novel just looks right. When I lived in Lincoln, there was a chain record store called MVC (it’s long gone now, I suspect). Among the racks of CDs, I saw the cover of the splendidly named Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot by Sparklehorse. A ridiculous clown mask was hanging against a blue sky filled with cotton-wool clouds. It fascinated me. And then there were the titles – Ballad of a Cold Lost Marble, Most Beautiful Widow in Town, Sad & Beautiful World… I made a snap judgement. And when I bought it, the music turned out to be a revelation. It remains one of my favourite albums. I can’t even begin to describe its beauty – Mark Linkous’ fragile voice croaking out those surreal lyrics, the understated instrumentation, the underlying, aching sadness of it all (MVC also had a copy of Work Lovelife Miscellaneous by David Devant & His Spirit Wife, the name and cover of which similarly intrigued me – it turned out to be entertaining but nowhere near as good). The same was true for the unnerving cityscape on the cover of Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy. I’ve referred before to this Hungarian novel from the 1970s. For some reason, someone had left the book out on top of the others on a shelf in the fiction section at Waterstone’s (don’t even get me started on synchronicity…). Again, I made a snap judgement. Metropole, it transpires, is an enigmatic and compelling read and happens to contain one of my favourite scenes from any book.


The cover of Karnithy’s Metropole looks something like this… but in which city are these buildings?

I can think of numerous other examples. We enter someone’s living space for the first time. We scan their bookshelves for a few moments and we make a judgement. Or I walk into W.H. Smith and look at the covers of the books there and they tell me instantly that I don’t want to read them. It’s like love at first sight. Do you believe in that? I’ve experienced it several times, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend its outcomes. Many of the people that I’ve become good friends with over the years appealed to me straight away, upon first encounter. As soon as I walked into my house to view it, I knew that I wanted to live there. By chance, a search result brought you to this blog post and you made a snap judgement to click on it. The three of you still reading at this point can nod sagely…

These judgements can mislead us too, of course. We can completely misread another person through initial impressions, for good or bad. Impulsive decisions can backfire (how well I know this). And anyone with an ounce of intelligence knows that judgements made on the basis of ethnicity, disability and so on are deplorable. Should we not judge a book by its cover, then? The problem is that it’s hard not to. How do we override several hundred millennia of human experience? And all too often, these judgements turn out to be the right ones.

All text and images © PSR 2015

4 Responses to “Judging the Contents by the Cover”

  1. Mari Biella December 11, 2015 at 8:59 am #

    We’re all programmed to make these snap, instinctive decisions – it would probably be impossible for us not to do so. It’s a faculty that’s probably served us well throughout human history, on the whole. Sometimes the outcomes are good, and sometimes – er – not quite so good. That’s always been my experience, anyway, which leads me to think that, if we have the time and luxury to do so, we should use it in conjunction with certain other abilities.

    We certainly do judge books by their covers, unfortunately – a bad book can often sell a few copies by virtue of its attractive cover, whereas a good book might be scuppered by an unappealing cover. Presentation certainly counts for a lot in the book world!

    Interesting post, Paul.

    • Paul Sutton Reeves December 11, 2015 at 9:43 pm #

      Hi Mari and thanks for commenting. I too suspect that we don’t make enough of the facility.

      Much of the modern world is a victory for presentation over content. Just occasionally, though, sublime packaging reveals a visionary work within, such as my two cases in point.

  2. Ed December 14, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

    Dear Mr Paul Eeves, I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your reading your blog, I feel that we must be kindred spirits and I always trust my instincts. I was only saying to my writing class last week “try to write not the things that you see but the things that you know to be there.” By their glazed looks I assume that the reference went right over their heads but after i made them write an essay on Elgar in the style of Beckett, I think the got the gist. I don’t know why I bother sometimes, they’ll all end up with 5 book contracrs churning out dross for airports and WHSmiths. They’ll fly off the shelves with their off the shelf covers. im sure some times the publishes have a “sexy” idea for a book cover and then emoloy a monkey to write some “head candy” to fill the gap between the front and back covers. If you look at the cover of my last tow books, Postal Panoply & Pet Peeves, you’ll see what a mess you get your publisher employs 12 year olds with a city & guilds in photoshop. Speaking of which have you seen that computer games are part of the national curriculum now.
    Happy Xmas Mr Eeves
    And best Wishes,
    Mr Eardon

    • Paul Sutton Reeves December 14, 2015 at 6:00 pm #

      Dear Mr Weirdun
      What an honour to hear from a writer of your stature! Can it really be you? I’ve long been an admirer. I rank Pastel Penelope among the foremost novels of recent times. And what fun your writing classes must be. Were they perchance the origin of your remarkable sonnet cycle, Waiting for Pomp and Circumstance? I can imagine the frustrations that you must endure in the modern educational environment. For myself, I am a simple kitchen boy at The Grand Larceny Hotel. Be that as it may, might I suggest a work that I think your writing class might enjoy? It’s a perfect marriage between author and illustrator. Perhaps you’re already familiar with Mr Gavrilo Machina’s remarkable Chundertrain? And Miss Chrysanthemum Dee’s artwork is a wonder to behold!
      A Merry Yuletide to you too Mr Earspoon
      Ever your servant
      P Eeves-Droppar

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