The old adage goes something like “Never judge a book by its cover.” It’s sound advice for navigating social circles, but not so much for judging an actual book. Think about it. You are browsing your favorite bookstore or library, filled with hundreds (or thousands, or more) stories, each wrapped in their respective covers. There has to be some way to narrow down the options to those that interest you. The cover is the author’s chance to separate their book from its brethren on the shelves. A chance for the book to literally jump off the bookshelf and scream “Pick me. Choose me. Love me.”
The old adage goes something like “Never judge a book by its cover.” It’s sound advice for navigating social circles, but not so much for judging an actual book.
If the cover was of no consequence, books would largely be released without any cover art or design. But, they’re not. And that’s because we know that the cover is an opportunity to pique your curiosity. If the cover is successful in this respect, then the author has a chance to further draw you in with the synopsis on the inside cover. Still holding your interest? Great, now perhaps you do a quick online search to see what others have to say about the book. If the book has made it this far in the journey from the shelf to your hands, and the reviews are good, there is probably a good chance this one is coming home with you. So, I stand solid in my assertion that a book most certainly can be judged (at least initially) by its cover.
But, I’m all for a lively exchange and open to seeing things from other perspectives, so I’ve endeavored to provide you with just some of the pros and cons of judging a book by its cover.
Book covers are like movie previews. They give you a visual taste of what you can expect once you open the pages. The cover image of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies gives you a vivid depiction of what is to be explored in the pages. Some covers are a bit more nuanced. Take a look at the cover of Tara Westover’s Educated; at first glance, it looks like a pencil, but a deeper look reveals a woman standing among mountains. The image is a profound visual depiction that compliments the story.
Book covers save time. There are so many books and it constantly feels like there is just not enough time to read all the great books you want to try. Each time you read one book on your wish list, it seems as if three others take its place. Book covers allow you to quickly determine if the cover sparks any interest. If not, you can move on.
Book covers help mood readers. There are some tropes that you are likely to see played out on book covers. I know I’m painting a pretty broad stroke, but hear me out. If you’re browsing for horror books, you’re probably more likely to gravitate towards the cover depicting a blood-stained knife than you are to the cover with the happy couple standing in front of a white picket fence. (But, there are some sinister horror stories out there, so maybe not…) Similarly, if you’re in the mood for a light-hearted read, there is a good chance you are not going to pick up that 700-page book with a war battle depicted on the cover. Paying homage to these tropes on book covers is useful in sorting through the sea of books to find just the ones you are in the mood for reading.
Quick judgments might just be wrong. Trying to quickly judge whether a book is your cup of tea by glancing at the cover has its drawbacks. There’s the potential that you miss out on some amazing stories because you judged a book too prematurely. The cover art of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season doesn’t say much about the story. However, the book received rave reviews, even winning a Hugo Award for Best Novel.
Book covers can be deceiving. A book cover may draw you in with compelling cover graphics, only to disappoint when it comes to delivering the story. I’m too polite to call out any specific books, but you can probably think of at least one book cover that intrigued you, but the actual story just fell flat. Book covers can get a reader to open a book, but the story must keep them between the pages.
The author’s imagination may supplant yours. If a book cover contains a picture of one or more of the characters, you miss out on the opportunity to use your imagination to conjure up your own image of the characters. Think Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer; while it is a visually appealing cover, do you wonder how your vision may have been different had you been left to your imagination?
With all that said, the good news is that there is no right or wrong answer. There’s no all or nothing. You can at times let the cover direct you to your next read and at other times, choose not to be swayed by the cover. What really matters, though, is that you enjoy the journey in the pages.