The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

the-clothing-of-booksIn this short essay-in-parts (you can read it in one sitting!), Lahiri explores the relationship between books and their covers. It’s utterly fascinating. I’d not given much thought to the nature of book covers beyond “sometimes I like them and sometimes I don’t.” But with insight and grace, Lahiri proves there’s a lot more to a book cover than…its cover.

She discusses the evolution of book covers over time, the various roles covers play in the lives of books, and all the extra information that’s often seen on book covers these days: blurbs, author accolades, biographical information. She writes about her own unease about seeing her own book covers, over which she has no control. We took book covers for granted, but she presents a fascinating point: how strange, to clothe a person’s words in the somebody else’s art.

Most compelling to me was her argument that book covers are essentially a visual interpretation of their books–a kind of artistic translation. Yet, most often they are designed in order to sell the book, and not to represent it as authentically as possible. She muses that, including foreign translations, there exist somewhere around one hundred covers for her five books. How strange–how possibly wonderful–that a work can be interoperated in so many different ways.

I appreciated that she examined her subject from many angles: as both a writer and a reader, someone who has published books, studied books, and loved books from a young age.

While this is a straightforward book, and aims only to explore and illuminate a single subject–book covers–Lahiri manages to get at something that is endlessly fascinating to me: the living, dynamic relationship between writers, publishers, readers, characters, and the work itself. I most often think about this in terms of the text, but books, of course, are objects as well as ideas. Lahiri brings the book as object into the conversation. Book covers, she asserts, are part of how we experience books, and are an important part of that strange and ever-changing relationship between readers and writers.

She narrates the audiobook in a smooth, even cadence that was almost as good as hearing her deliver the lecture this book is based on. Whether in audio or in print, I highly recommend this thoughtful and delightful essay. I will never look at covers the same way again.

3 thoughts on “The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

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  1. I actually just reviewed this one on my blog, too! Glad to see others appreciate it as well. I adore everything she writes – have you read any of her short story collections?

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    1. She’s one of my favorites. I love all of her books, and reading this made me want to read In Other Words, which is the only one of hers I haven’t read. I love her short stories–I’m quite picky about my short story collections, but hers are so masterful.

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