Jhumpa Lahiri: The clothing of books
THE CLOTHING OF BOOKS
June 10th, 2015
“Camerado, this is no book; who touches this, touches the man.”
(Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)
1. The Charm of the Uniform
In the house of my father’s family in Calcutta, which I visited as a child, I would watch my cousins getting dressed in the mornings. They got themselves ready for school; I, on the other hand, was on vacation. They donned every morning, after bathing and before having breakfast, the same thing: a uniform.
My cousins attended different schools and therefore their respective uniforms were also different. My male cousin wore blue cotton shorts. My female cousin, a few years older, wore an orange skirt. Apart from these two colors the rest of the uniform was identical: a white short-sleeved shirt, white socks, black shoes.
In the closet there were probably two pairs of blue shorts, two orange skirts. It was enough to put on what was cleaned and pressed. In America, before leaving for India, my mother would buy several pairs of white socks, knowing that my aunt would be grateful for them.
However simple and functional, I found my cousins’ uniforms splendid, fascinating. On the street, on busses and trams, I was struck by this visual language, thanks to which one could identify and classify thousands of students in such a large and populous city. Every uniform represented belonging to one school or another. Each of my peers in Calcutta enjoyed, to my eyes, a strong identity and, at the same time, a sort of anonymity. This is the effect of the uniform.
I would have liked a uniform myself. Whenever I would go to the seamstress to be fitted for new clothes –a particular adventure I could only experience in India where, in the 1970s, it was still common to wear handmade clothing instead of buying them in stores– I was tempted to ask for one. It was a foolish desire on my part. A garment of this kind would have been useless to me. In America I attended public school, where everyone wore what they wished. And I was tormented by this choice, by this freedom.
As a child, expressing myself through clothing was a source of anguish. I already felt different, conspicuous because of my name, my family, my appearance. In all other respects, I wanted to be just like everybody else. I dreamt of sameness, even invisibility.
Instead, forced to find my own style, I felt badly dressed, the exception rather than the rule.
It did not help that some of my classmates used to tease me, finding my clothes somewhat strange. They would say: What an ugly outfit. Those two things clash, didn’t you know? No one wears bell bottoms any more, they’re out of style. They laughed. That is why, for many years, while waiting for the school bus, my day began in a state of humiliation.
They derided me and, implicitly, also my parents. Being foreigners, they bought my clothes with an eye towards saving and not toward fashion or norms. They bought my clothes at end-of-season sales or at used clothing stores, knowing that I would outgrow the items in less than a year. My mother, moreover, did not share the taste of American moms. She did not shop in the same stores or dress me like the other girls. This is why I thought that a uniform would have been the solution.
Clothing has always carried additional layers of meaning to me. My mother, even today, almost fifty years after leaving India, wears only the traditional clothing of her country. She barely tolerated my American clothes. She did not find my jeans or t-shirts cute. When I became an adolescent she disapproved of short skirts, high heels. The older I grew, the more it mattered to her that I, too, wear Indian or, at the very least, concealing clothing. She held out for my becoming a Bengali woman like her.
Every time we went to a party of another Bengali family, to an important event or celebration, she would ask, implore, in the end force me to wear Indian clothing. If I protested, she would get mad. To placate her I gave in, but I would get irritated and sulk. As soon as I put on those clothes I felt like a different person, a foreigner like her. I felt the weight of an imposed identity. Those clothes, which had their own separate space in my closet, had a discordant, showy quality: colors that seemed too bright, material rooted in another land. They were, actually, more elegant than my everyday clothes, but I could not tolerate them. They tasted of a far away place. They weighed almost nothing, and yet they weighed on me.
Throughout this bitter struggle between my mother and myself, longstanding and with no clear resolution, I learned the hard way how the way we dress, like the language we speak and the food we eat, expresses our identity, our culture, our sense of belonging. From childhood I understood that the clothes I wore, wherever I was, rendered me an “other.” Even in Calcutta, when I went out with my cousins whom I physically resemble, I was perceived as a foreigner, often addressed in English. When I would ask them why, the answer was, with a shrug of the shoulders, “it must be your clothes”.
As an adult, I dress the way I want; I decide how I present myself. But there remains the shadow of that old anxiety, the fear of being badly dressed, mistaken, judged. Every so often, overwhelmed by my wardrobe, by the pressure of having to choose the right outfit, I still wonder if it would be simpler to adopt a sort of uniform.
When my books were first published, when I was thirty-two years old, I discovered that another part of me had to be dressed and presented to the world. But what is wrapped around my words –my book jackets– are not of my choosing.
I am forced, at times, to accept book jackets that I dislike, that find problematic, disappointing. I tend to give in. I say to myself, let it go, it’s not worth the battle. But I end up feeling afflicted, resentful.
What in Italian is called a sovraccoperta (literally, “over-cover”) is also called, in English, a jacket. A jacket made to measure, conceived and created specifically to cover and package a book. It should fit like a glove. And yet, in my opinion, most of my book jackets don’t fit me, which is way I sometimes think, as a writer too, that a uniform would be the answer.
2. Why a Cover?
The definition of the word copertina (“cover”) in my Italian dictionary is quite succinct: “The paper or cardboard wrapper that covers a book, notebook or magazine. My own definition, on the other hand, is much more extensive, with other nuances, declinations.
A cover appears only when the book is finished, when it is about to come into the world. It marks the birth of the book and, therefore, the end of my creative endeavor. It confers to the book a mark of independence, a life of its own. It tells me that my work is done. So, while for the publishing house it signals the arrival of the book, for me it is a farewell.
The cover signifies that the text inside is clean, definitive. It is no longer wild, coarse, malleable. From now on the text is fixed, and yet the cover has a metaphoric function as well. It turns the text into an object, something concrete to publish, distribute and, in the end, sell.
If the process of writing is a dream, this represents the awakening.
The news that a new cover is about to arrive elicits ambivalent emotions in me. On the one hand I am moved because I have successfully brought a book to conclusion. On the other I fret. I know that when the cover makes its appearance the book will be read. It will be criticized, analyzed, forgotten. Even though it exists to protect my words, the arrival of the cover, linking me to the public, makes me feel vulnerable.
The cover makes me aware that the book has already been read. Because in reality, the book jacket is not only the text’s first clothing, but also, the first interpretation–both visual and for sales promotion. It represents a collective reading by the book designer and various people at the publishing house; it matters how they see it, what they think of it, what they want from it. In know that before a book is launched, the cover has to be discussed, considered, approved, by many.
The first time I see one of my cover, while thrilling, is always upsetting. No matter how effective or intriguing it may be, there always exists, between us, a disconnect, a disequilibrium. The cover already knows my book, while I have not yet made its acquaintance. I try to get used to it, to get close to it.
My reactions are various, visceral. They can make me laugh or want to cry. They depress me, they confuse me, they infuriate me. Some I can’t quite figure out, they leave me perplexed. How is it possible, I ask myself, that my book has been framed in such an ugly or banal way?
The right cover is like a beautiful coat, elegant and warm, wrapping my words as they travel through the world, on their way to keep an appointment with my readers.
The wrong cover is cumbersome, suffocating. Or, it is like a too light sweater: inadequate.
A good jacket is flattering. I feel myself listened to, understood.
A bad jacket is like an enemy; I find it hateful.
There is a certain awful jacket for one of my books that elicits in me an almost violent response. Every time I am asked to autograph that edition I feel the impulse to rip the cover off the book.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that a cover is a sort of translation, that is, an interpretation of my words in another language — a visual one. It represents the text, but is not part of it. It must not be too literal. It must have it’s own take on the book.
Like a translation, a cover can be faithful to the book, or it can be misleading. In theory, like a translation, it should be in the service of the book, but this is not always the dynamic. A cover can be overbearing, dominating.
Whichever way it goes, a cover imposes an intimate relationship between author and image. This is why it can lead to a sense of complete alienation. If I don’t like a cover I want to back away from it at once. But I can’t. The jacket touches my words, it’s wearing me.
This moment teaches me to let go of the book. It signifies a loss of control.
The cover is superficial, negligible, irrelevant with respect to the book. The cover is an essential, vital component of the book. One must accept the fact that both these sentences are true.
It always strikes me that in the “Reading” page of Corriere della Sera, the cover is given a grade, alongside “writing style” and “plot,” in every book review. Initially I thought, it’s not fair. Why this level of attention? Why should the visual garb matter in judging the book? Later, I changed my mind. It makes sense. Once a book has a jacket, it is part of the book, and has an effect, either positive or negative. It either attracts or repels the reader.
We take for granted that every book has a cover. Without one it is considered naked, incomplete, in some ways inaccessible. It lacks a door through with to enter the text. It lacks a face.
As a girl, I wrote my first “novels” in a series of notebooks. I drew a cover, therefore, for every story. I made sure that the essential elements were all there: the title of the work, the name of the author. I aimed for compelling graphics. Sometimes there was also an illustration or a portrait of the protagonist. Other times no.
Why do covers exist? First and foremost, to encase the pages. Centuries past, when books were rare and precious objects, luxurious materials were used: leather, gold, silver, ivory.
Today the role of the cover is more complicated. It now serves to identify the book, to insert it into a style or genre. To embellish it, to make it more effective in the window display of a bookstore. To intrigue passers-by so that, once attracted, they come in and pick it up, so that they by it.
As soon as it puts on a jacket the book acquires a new personality. It says something even before being read, just as clothes say something about us before we speak.
A cover elicits certain expectations. It introduces a tone, an attitude, even when these don’t fit the book. I have just compared it to a face, but it is also a mask, something that hides what is behind. It can seduce the reader. It can betray him. Like gold tinsel, its glitter can deceive.
One might say that it calls into play the opposition between true and false, appearance and reality.
The cover confers a book with not one identity but two. It introduces an expressive element distinct from that of the text. There is what the text says, and what the cover says. That is why one can love the cover and hate the book, or vice-versa.
I confess to having bought a book for its cover more than once, simply because I could not resist it, because I fell under it’s spell. I trusted the image even if the content was less convincing. I have, in America, a collection of pocket books with jackets designed by Edward Gorey, a well-known American illustrator whose macabre images I have always loved. If I see one in a used bookstore, no matter what the book is, I buy it right away. In this case, I realize, the cover is more valuable to me than the text.
The cover, therefore, has an independent identity. It has a presence, a power of it’s own.
In Rome, where I have been living only a few years, I do not own many books. When we first arrived in Italy we brought very few with us. Our apartment has a large bookcase, with space for many volumes. It would have been absurd, also sad, to shelve twenty or so books on it. Instead, to fill up the space, I decided to display the books facing forward. As a consequence, during the past few years, I spend a lot of time enjoying certain covers, aware of the effect they have on me.
Over time the bookcase has become a sort of installation in progress that reflects my reading, my roman life. A portrait painted by Titian, a snapshot of the poet Patrizia Cavalli, and the photographs of Marco Delogu keep me company. I exhibit the jackets of novels and books of essays by my new Italian friends, as if they were the framed pictures of my new family. In Rome, my books compensate for walls bereft of paintings and other beautiful things. In an apartment rented already furnished, a bit devoid of personal effects, the books represent my taste, my presence.
It makes quite an impression to display books with the jacket facing out rather than the spine. Usually, all in a row on a shelf, books are discrete, rather reserved. They form part of the background, reassuring but neutral. Faced-out jackets are, conversely, extroverted, uninhibited, unique. They demand attention. They say: look at us.
3. Correspondence and Collaboration
Dressing a book is an art, there is no doubt. A published volume sits at the intersection of two forms of creative expression. Every book jacket implies the touch of an artist. And this pairing, this understanding between writer and artist interests me greatly.
An example that has always struck me is the collaboration between Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, who designed a series of book covers, now iconic, for almost all of Woolf’s first editions with Hogarth Press. This independent publishing house was founded in 1917 specifically to publish books by Woolf, her husband Leonard, and those of friends and acquaintances, free from commercial considerations and protected from censorship. At first the books were hand printed. The printing press sat on their dining table at home.
Bell’s covers are powerful, unconventional, modernist. They perfectly express the experimental essence of Woolf’s work. And yet, typically, Bell didn’t read the whole book. Woolf would recount the plot for her so that she could create a corresponding image. A dialogue between the author and the artist was enough. The critic S.P. Rosenbaum calls the covers “optical echoes” of the text, citing an expression by Henry James.
As a writer I often search in vain for this “optical echo.” I too want my covers to reflect the sense and spirit of my books. It would like it if, even once, it were designed by someone who knew me well, who deeply knew my work, for whom it really mattered.
I have never spoken with the designers of my covers. I don’t know them, I’m not involved. I see the final product, these days as an attachment to an email. I can sign-off on it or not, perhaps ask for small changes. I ask myself if the artist has read the book, or one chapter, or even a few pages before designing something. I ask myself if they liked the book. It’s not clear to me.
Not knowing the person behind the book jacket, I don’t feel free to critique it. The publishing house handles all interactions. They send me the results of the artist’s labors, and let the artist know of my reaction. But there is no way to interact directly with the artist. He or she remains a mysterious, hidden figure. A distance remains between us.
Every author has a reaction to his or her book jackets, but few speak of it openly. A few months ago I came across a brief but pointed text on the subject by Lalla Romano. In an essay titled “The Einaudi Covers,” published in the collection Un sogno del nord (A Dream of the North), she analyzes and evaluates the book jackets of her main publishing house. She writes: “Because I come from painting, to me the look of the book is not just an intriguing element but something fundamental. It is very hard to love an ugly book (as object), often all the more ugly because it wants to be beautiful.” I was struck by her words, and they have spurred me to write this address.
Romano, like me, searches for the “perfect resonance with the style of the book.” She participated, like Woolf, in the decision, suggesting certain images, designs, paintings. From an exchange between author and artist springs the ideal exchange between jacket and text.
We don’t live in a world in which a cover can simply reflect the sense and style of the book. Today more than ever the book jacket shoulders an additional weight. It’s function is much more commercial than aesthetic. It succeeds or fails in the market.
In modern mass publishing, book jackets contain a lot of information beyond that of the title of the book, the name of the author, and a design. It lists past awards and honors, quotes from critics and other writers who have liked the book, information pertaining to best-seller lists. It has become a label that lists the ingredients of the book. Sometimes a wraparound band is added, a sort of belt on top of the jacket to indicate, for example, that the book has gone into a second printing, or fourth, or ninth; or to draw to the reader’s attention some other hot news, information, reviews.
I think that publishers, today, have overloaded covers with unreasonable expectations. They must grab and win the attention of dazed and disoriented browsers in big bookstores, who must pluck this book and only this one from overstuffed shelves or a table blanketed in volumes. All of the energy and strategy behind a book cover underlines a depressing fact: the terrifying number of books published in the world every year, and the few that are actually bought and read.
Despite the exalted role of the cover, in the end, they don’t get much respect. Book jackets are often blamed if a book doesn’t sell. I often hear editors say: “The book is beautiful. Too bad the cover was wrong.”
To be badly dressed is always a condemnation. But, just as with the wrong clothing, one can take off a book jacket and put on another. In America, if a first edition doesn’t sell well enough, the cover is changed for the paperback edition, and in Italy they do the same. Every once in a while, I’ll like a proposed cover, but then the publishing house informs me: “We have decided to go in another direction.” The jacket remains something removable, interchangeable. Regardless of its power, if it doesn’t sell the book, it has no value.
4. The Naked Book
Let’s move in a different direction and speak of the naked book.
I did not own many books as a girl. I would go to the library, where books were often undressed: without a jacket or any image. I would find only hard-covers, and the pages that they contained.
I am the daughter of a librarian, and I too have worked for years in the same library from which I used to borrow books. I know that it is costly, also challenging, to protect the covers of volumes that will be read repeatedly by many. Book jackets are easily ruined and, even though there are ways to protect them, with plastic covers, for example, it is always easier to strip them. Hard-covers are made specifically to live in a library, while paperback pocket editions are much more temporary.
I have read hundreds of books, almost all of the literature of my schooling, without a summary blurb on the flap, without an author photograph. They had an anonymous quality, secretive. They gave nothing away in advance. To understand them, you had to read them.
The authors I loved at the time were embodied only by their words. The naked cover doesn’t interfere. My first reading happened outside of time, ignorant of the market, of current events. The part of me that regards book jackets with suspicion seeks to rediscover that experience.
When I purchase a book today, I acquire a range of other things: a picture of the author, biographical information, reviews. All of this complicates matters. It causes confusion. It distracts me. I hate reading the comments on the cover; it is to them that we owe one of the most repugnant words in the English language: blurb. Personally, I think it deplorable to place the words and opinions of others on the book jacket. I want the first words read by the reader of my book to be written by me.
Today the relationship between reader and book is far more mediated, with a dozen people buzzing around. We are never alone, me (the reader) and the text. I miss the silence, the mystery of the naked book: solitary, without support. It allows one to read in freedom, without previews or introductions. I believe that a naked book, too, can stand on its own feet.
Unfortunately it can’t be sold that way. Almost no one wants to buy something unknown, not even a book, without prior information. In some ways today’s reader resembles a tourist who, thanks to the guide books –this is, thanks to the impact of the book jacket– begins to inform and orient himself before disembarking in an unknown place. Before discovering it, before being there. Before reading.
The bound galleys of my first book published in the United States resembled a naked book to some degree. No image, just essential information. There was something generic rather than individual about them. In the past, when I would go on tour to promote a book, I would read from the bound galleys. When I was forced to use a copy of the actual book, I would remove the jacket. As I have said, the dressed book no longer belongs to me.
Sixteen years ago in America, when my first collection of stories was about to be released, critics and bookstore owners received imageless bound galleys. Why? Perhaps because even the publishing house, at the time, wanted the advance copies to be pristine, without added distractions or noise, hence without a jacket. To me, this seems right.
By now, unfortunately, even the bound galleys contain what to me is superfluous information. The galleys of my last novel list the size of the printing run, my previous prizes and honors, and the titles of my other books. No matter how “essential” it appears, it seems rigged somehow. I thought that the final cover was not there, but leafing through the galley, on page one, I came across a reproduction of it on the first page, followed by the flap copy. It was all there, just slightly hidden. There is no escape. For me, there are no more naked books.
5. Uniformity and Anarchy
Now that I live in Italy, I have gotten to know another type of book cover: that which belongs to an editorial series. Coming from the United States, these covers have a strong effect on me. I find their simplicity and seriousness admirable. They seduce me, just as my cousins’ school uniforms did.
The covers that form part of a series are sober, at once generic and immediately recognizable. By now, in an Italian bookshop or at a friend’s house, I recognize straightaway the white books belonging to Struzzi Einaudi, the mellow colors of the Adelphi series, the dark blue of Sellerio.
At the moment I am reading two books, both published by Adelphi: La Pelle (The Skin) by Curzio Malaparte, and L’Inconveniente di essere nati (The Trouble with Being Born) by Emil Cioran. They are two very different writers but, dressed in Adelphi jackets the two books resemble each other, as if they were members of the same family, of the same bloodline. The books share the same size and, most importantly, they are products of the same aesthetic sensibility. Both covers bear a framed image, then the title of the book and the name of the author. They are printed on fine paper which is glued to the book only at the back. I like the fact that the rest of the jacket can be removed from the bound pages, like a tent, and that beneath this light sheet of paper there is a firmer undercover in white. Behold, the naked book.
An editorial series is a system for organizing a large number of books. A library arranged this way is visually harmonious. The husband of an Italian friend of mine orders his bookcases by series, in chromatic order. The effect is marvelous. According to his wife, however, aesthetic virtues aside, it’s not a good system. Beautiful to look at, she says, but one can’t find anything.
On my desk I have a row of books from Adelphi’s Piccola Biblioteca series. In the mess that covers my desk they form an elegant, reassuring island. I own seven. Each bears a number on its spine. When I look at them I feel the need to own the whole series, starting with number one, even though there are more than six hundred.
The authors published in the series belong to one another, and they all belong to the publishing house. Each book represents the choice, the taste of the editor, but the series confers to the book an identity, a sort of citizenship. A series says to its authors: You are one of us.
This raises an interesting and much debated question. Is the series more important, or the individual books within? I have not yet made up my mind. The series serves the individual text, and also vice-versa. On the one hand the series seems to me a discreet wrapper, less invasive than a wholly unique book cover. On the other, it has a somewhat formal, even pompous, effect.
I think of each editorial series as an exclusive world, a sort of closed circle. I wonder, how does one get in? And yet, at least in Italy, editorial series' include contemporary authors. Adelphi’s Piccola Biblioteca includes Friedrich Nietzsche and Yasmina Reza, Benedetto Croce and Jamaica Kincaid. In Europe an editorial series is not something musty. On the contrary, I think it is a community, current, international, eclectic, alive.
And yet, seen from a different angle, it is also classical, trusted, unchanging. Its value is its continuity, with subtle changes. It vigorously resists fashion, confusion, instability. It exists, something like the naked book, outside time.
I write these words in a library in Rome. It is a magnificent Italian palazzo that is filled, nonetheless, mostly with American books. I believe I was destined to have discovered it. Here is where I, an anglophone writer, dreamt up and wrote my first book in Italian.
I am surrounded in this library by my past. I think of my father’s long life as a librarian, of the library I went to as a girl, of all the libraries I have frequented and loved in America.
And yet I think and write, here, in Italian. It is here that my writing has taken a new direction.
As I write in Italian, I look up from time to time, to gaze at the books that keep me company. I see the row of spines. They are organized according to a precise classification. What is lacking, however, is a visual order. I see a jumble of jacket-less books, with hard plain covers or protective plastic jackets.
There are books from different ages, different genres, some published recently, some more than a century ago. One sees an amalgam of styles, diversity of thought. One sees little uniformity. There is visual confusion, but also a sort of joyful exuberance. It reminds me of a party made of distinct individuals who enjoy each other’s company.
It is an inclusive environment. It suggests that any book can join in and take up residence on a shelf. They belong to the collective and, at the same time, belong only to themselves. Needless to say, American book jackets reflect the country – little homogeneity, lots of diversity.
If I rise to stretch for a moment, I spot here and there an American editorial series –a set of biographies, or one book in several tomes. Only in this context, books that wear uniforms are the exception, not the rule.
The volumes of an American editorial series--the highly regarded Modern Library, “the Library of America”--convey that the book is a classic. The series is an homage to praiseworthy and by now untouchable authors. Uniformity, in this case, is a sign of belonging to the literary canon, unchanging clothes for timeless words.
Jackets of this kind are a strong recognition, a sort of prize, almost always conferred posthumously. Nine out of ten times, the author is dead. A contemporary book by a young author would not be worthy. Unlike the European series where living and dead authors coexist, the American series seems to me almost a mausoleum.
6. My Jackets
My books tell stories, but what stories, meanwhile, do my covers tell?
Upon close inspection, my covers tend perfectly to mirror my own double identity, bifurcated, disputed. As a consequence they are often projections, conjectures.
All my life I have been in conflict between two diverse identities, both imposed. No matter how I try to free myself from this conflict, I find myself, as a writer, caught in the same trap.
For some publishing houses, my name and photograph are enough to quickly commission a cover that teems with stereotyped references to India: elephants, exotic flowers, henna painted hands, the Ganges, religious and spiritual symbols. No one considers that the greater part of my stories are set in the United States, and therefore pretty far from the river Ganges.
Once, after I complained that the cover of a book in which the protagonist was born and raised in the U.S. seemed too “exotic,” that a less “oriental” approach was better suited, they removed the image of an enchanting Indian building and replaced with an American flag. From one stereotype, that is, to another.
For me, therefore, a wrong jacket is not just an aesthetic issue, because it retriggers a series of anxieties felt ever since I was a child. Who am I? How am I seen, dressed, perceived, read? I write not only to avoid the question, but also to seek the answer.
I have the fortune to have been translated into several foreign languages. Given that I am now the author of five books, I would guess that this means, in all, around one hundred different book covers. One hundred different interpretations.
If I place the different jackets of just one of my books all in a row, it becomes obvious how they change in tone, spirit, identity. I see a lively one, a gloomy one, a bright one. I see birds of various kinds. I see an intricate design, a minimalist one. I see a jacket with just the title, my name, and nothing else. I see explicit allusions to the political aspects of the novel –guns, the hammer and sickle. I see landscapes that evoke Calcutta, and I see a bunch of flowers on a table. I see two boys who are diving into water.
On the one hand, it is lovely to see them together, to take in the abundance of styles, the variety. On the other, I ask myself: how it is possible that one book, the same book, can generate this panorama of images? All of these covers have been inspired by the same story. Translations notwithstanding, every sentence is the same. And yet they seem like twelve different books, with twelve diverging themes, written by twelve different authors.
The differences also reflect each nation’s identity and collective taste. It is very rare for the editor of my book in one country to like the book jacket of another. They usually say, politely, “how interesting,” then add that it would never work in their country, for their readers. A cover that one person cherishes is devoid of meaning to another. What does this mean? I fear that, even in a globalized world, it signals an inability to recognized oneself in the other.
Like the language in which the text is written, the book jacket can constitute a barrier. During the period in which I was writing this lecture I found myself in a bookstore in Holland. The books all around me were in Dutch, a language in which I can’t read a word. It made no sense to open any of the books and glance at the first page. As I looked at the books, I could only take in their visual impact. They remained objects to me, as if the bookstore were a museum in which one can look but not buy. I found the covers attractive, but mostly, I found them foreign. I quickly realized, in the Amsterdam bookstore, that I was somewhere else. Each country’s jackets form a distinct geography, an unmistakable landscape.
Everyone likes to judge a book cover. In the first place, it is easier to evaluate the cover than the content. Besides, it’s fun. All one needs to do is to look and react. I’d like to share some of the comments by friends in Italy to draft versions of the jacket for my last novel, The Lowland: It looks like a cookie tin. It reminds me of an adventure book for adolescents. It looks like a Persian carpet. It seems like a political thriller. Looks like a book written by the Pope.
I have a new book, written in Italian, released a few months ago: In altre parole (In Other Words). Its arrival introduces a new and unexpected element in my literary identity. I am not Italian, and yet the book is written in Italian. It speaks of the Italian language, and my relationship to it. It does not share much with the books that preceded it. It is a meditative book, autobiographical, without much of a setting.
The first cover, the Italian one, is one that I like. It shows a woman seen from the back, facing a sort of wall. And yet the image is light, open, ambiguous. It communicates, I think, the sense of my literary project, even though I never spoke with the illustrator. I did not expect it, it came as a surprise, but I consider it nevertheless the right cover for this book. In this case, the adventure has a happy ending.
In altre parole will be translated into various languages and, during this period, I am asked to evaluate one book cover after another. The UK and the American editions will have a picture of me in a library in Rome. The Dutch edition, already published, is another photo of me, in close-up and out of focus. They think that it conveys the personal and introspective nature of the book.
My first reaction to the idea of having my picture on the cover was negative. I was afraid that it would be judged as an act of vanity, a shamefaced way to market a niche book. I later reconsidered.
Both photos of me were taken by a friend in Rome, someone who knows me, who has read my books, someone I trust. Together we chose both portraits. Before taking the shot in the library we talked about it. I told him what I wanted and he listened to me. Thus, for the first time, I was able to participate in the creation of a book jacket. In the end the author is the book, and represents the work directly, also sincerely. Better a photo of me than an annoying, irrelevant image. Maybe it makes sense that, in America, in England, in Holland, I have become my own cover.
Even when I don’t particularly like one of my jackets, I end of feeling some affinity for it. Over time, the covers become a part of me, and I identify with them. Recently, in Italy, a peculiar thing happened: I was sent a complimentary book by an Italian publisher, and this book –the Italian edition of a novel written in English by a writer of Indian origin– has the same cover as the American edition of my first book of short stories. It is identical in every detail.
Opening the envelope, taking it in, I was dumbfounded. At first I thought that it was my own book, but then I realized that it had more pages and that the title and the author’s name were different. I quickly called my agent. “But this is my jacket!” I told her. Apparently such things can happen. In any case it’s too late, the fat twin to my book is already out. The other day at the Rome airport I came across a stack of them, believing for a second that they were mine.
Years ago, I thought that that cover had been made to measure. I believed that it would belong to my book, only mine, and that it would remain faithful to me. Instead, the same jacket that dressed my words has later abandoned me for another author, in another country, without, however, leaving me altogether.
7. The Living Jacket, the Dead Jacket, the Perfect Jacket
Today, the printed book is no longer the only manifestation of a published text. What is the significance of the cover when there is no longer a physical volume? I don’t read e-books, but I don’t think that jackets have the same function, the same presence, on a screen. Strangely, the screen privileges the text, and the graphic garment no longer dresses or protects. It remains a detail, an accessory, an element that is ancillary and, I would say, gratuitous. It becomes even more of a label. A paper cover, over time, gets dirty, gets ruined. On the screen, nothing of the kind takes place.
A painter I know and admire in America, Richard Baker, has for many years dedicated a series of paintings to classic book covers. He usually selects, as his models, pocket editions, that is, the most modest and inexpensive of editions. Several are books that have changed his life. The paintings resemble hyper-realistic gouache photographs. Baker depicts the books faithfully, with affection but with an unsparing eye. He ingeniously copies the graphic designs of others.
All of the books have been lived with, held in hand day after day. Their covers are tattered, yellowed, bleached by the sun. It is as if they were faces, furrowed, tried. They are, through and through, alive.
Each one of Baker’s paintings is the portrait of a book, but they tell us much more. They recount the passion of reading, both Baker’s and all of ours. They narrate the literary education of a generation. The preserve on canvas a world, a culture that is declining. They elicit nostalgia, recalling an era that no longer exists. Above all they show the relationship, the strong ties of affection, almost a fusion, between reader and book. Baker has said that books:
“come to stand for various episodes in our lives, for certain idealisms, follies of belief, moments of love. Along the way they accumulate our marks, our stains, our innocent abuses—they come to wear our experience of them on their covers and bindings like wrinkles on our skin.”
By immortalizing the book covers of his life, Baker depicts how they age and, in the end, die, like we do. They express something fleeting, never definite, never permanent.
What is the perfect book jacket? It doesn’t exist. The great majority of covers, like our clothes, don’t last forever. They make sense, give pleasure, only in a specific arc of time, after which they are dated. Over the years they need redesign, change, just like old translations. A new jacket is given to the book to reinvigorate it, to make it more current. The only part left intact is the original text, that is, in the language in which it was written.
Like Richard Baker, I remain faithful to the book covers that have changed my life. If I see an edition of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Shakespeare’s Complete Works other than the one I read in college, it seems like a different book. I fear that the unknown edition, the one I did not hold, that did not accompany me to the library, that I did not mark-up and study, that I did not fall in love with, would not elicit the same emotion in me.
I remain attached even to certain ugly covers of books I would read and return in high school without ever owning them. In the end, the beauty of the cover has nothing to do with it. Like every true love, that of the reader is blind.
If it were possible for me to choose one of my covers, how would I choose? The uniform jacket of an editorial series? Or something original created specifically for my book?
On the one hand I want desperately to belong, to have a clear identity. On the other, I refuse to belong, and I believe that my hybrid identity enriches me. I will probably always remain torn between these two roads, these two impulses.
I would certainly prefer the uniformed elegance of a series to an insipid cover, or one that causes me anguish. And yet I know that expressing oneself necessarily means being different. The writer’s voice is a singular one, solitary. Art is nothing other than the freedom to express oneself in any language, in whatever manner, dressed any which way.
If I could dress a book myself, I would like a still life by Morandi on the cover, or maybe a collage by Matisse. It would make no commercial sense, and would probably not mean anything to the reader. But I recognize myself in the abstract eye, the chromatic palette, the language of these two painters. It would make sense to me.
I wrote this last sentence one evening. The following morning, after stating my wish, something marvelous happened. Right in front of the gate to the building where I live there is a bus stop with two signposts close together.
By lovely coincidence, as I was writing this speech, Rome was host to two exhibits: Morandi and Matisse. When I exited my building the following morning, looking up, I saw, on the signpost to my right, a poster of a still life by Morandi, and to my left, a work by Matisse. For a few moments I stood between them, imagining myself transformed into the pages of a book, jacketed by both.
Translated by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush