To Judge a Book

Have you ever wandered through a bookstore or library, your fingers trailing lightly along the spines of all the quiet books waiting to be read, only to pull one out, take a quick look at the cover, and shove it back onto the shelf without bothering to even read the inside flap? Making a snap judgment based solely on the series of images emblazoning the jacket? I know I have. Judging a book by its cover is a fairly trite idiom in the English language, but I think that as an idea it stands up well under examination, both literally and metaphorically.

Bet you wouldn't even watch the HBO adaptation of the girly one.
Bet you wouldn’t even watch the HBO adaptation
of the girly one.

A few months ago, author Maureen Johnson posed an interesting question to her readers and followers. After receiving numerous letters from male readers asking her to please change the covers of her books so that they wouldn’t feel embarrassed to read them in public, Ms. Johnson came to the conclusion that while men and women “can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, the woman is simply more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.” To subvert this notion, she asked her Twitter followers to participate in an experiment called Coverflip–first, take a well-known book, then imagine the author of that book was of the opposite gender, and imagine what that cover might look like.

You can read about the full experiment here, and I recommend looking at the slideshow of the resulting images. I found them both hilarious and upsetting, for a variety of reasons. Maybe some other day I’ll rant about gender inequality, but today I think I’d like to talk about something even more basic: people judging people by the covers of the books they read.

Maureen Johnson’s male readers didn’t not want to read her books. They didn’t want to read her books when they novels were packaged in such a way that suggested they were girly books. It’s an odd sort of self-referential trope, wherein literally judging a book by its cover leads you to metaphorically judge a book by its cover, ie. the reader of said book! Quelle horreur! The irony!

'Nuff said.
‘Nuff said.

I’ve experienced this myself many times. The first time I think I was aware of being judged by the cover of the book I was reading was in 9th grade, on the school bus. I don’t remember what the book was, but one intellectually pompous classmate sneered at my taste in books before promptly dismissing my capacity for any true love of reading or understanding of quality literature. This has since happened more times in my life than I care to admit. Strangers, friends, and even family often feel entitled to comment on my reading material based purely on the packaging of the book, and it always feels like that commentary extends to me, my personality, and even my intellect. I stand dissected before the world, merely because I chose to read a novel in public.

Can’t a girl just read a freakin’ book?

It’s been a while since I’ve cared enough to hide what I’m reading, even if the cover is sunshine, flowers, and smooth jazz. Because I’ve learned that not only are the covers of books rarely indicative of the content, but that I am defined neither by what I’m reading nor what people think I’m reading.

So I dare you. The next time you’re in a bookstore or a library, pull out a book, look at the cover, and then read it anyway. Maybe you’ll like it. And the next time you’re tempted to judge a stranger based on the book they’re reading on the bus or train, don’t. Ask them what it’s about instead.

I double-dog dare you.

Have you ever been guilty of judging a book by its cover, literally or metaphorically? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!

Leave a Reply