A book by its cover

Posted by @ 10:07 pm on November 16th, 2009


It’s funny how publishers convey to their readership how tedious and non-pleasurable a book will be based on the lack of color on the cover. Stick some guy’s grainy face on there and consider the suicide pact signed. In my indulgently dour youth, I would only read books with grim black n’ white covers, thinking that such monochromatic plight was “deep,” and that I was similar to those intense and austere men in our refusal of hue. True, many of these books and their designs happened before color photography, but it seems most of the incidents were retroactive.

e6c9810ae7a084d4960a0210.LI also went through a phase where I’d prefer to read cloth bound hardcover books, like the Everyman’s Library series. Weary of library book funk, I’d buy the books new, cognizant of the hypocrisy. I’d even remove the dust jacket so people (females, of course) on the bus or at the cafe could see how bookish and sensitive I was, sort of like an Asian male Emily Bronte open for a one-night-stand with no strings attached. I never did get laid, but the people at the bookstore loved me. I recall a girl on the bus with The Fountainhead, doing her own “personal ad” look of torment. She was mid-way through and still single.

Then (bear with me, I often treat htmlgiant like a diary) I went through a weird self-conscious narcissistic phase where I thought everyone was judging me for being a book snob based on all the snobby books (just named-dropped and hurt my toe, then deleted) I was reading — I would actually hide the cover to my side while walking around. In cafes, when going to the restroom, I’d lay the book cover facing the table. Of course, no one gave a shit.

Even now, when it’s time to try out a new author and read them for the first time, I make efforts to read their most notable work — over-riding the “lesser” ones I deem more interesting — so that I’m fully prepared to spew my mouth about it the next time the author comes up at a bar. When a friend once, upon seeing my copy of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, asked “what is that?” I said

“It’s complicated.”

I actually said that, literally. Mother was not around to smack me. And I never even finished that book because, well, it was complicated.

Reading is inextricably ostentatious. We are all thumping our personal bible — sure that those words matter more, that Truth might even be involved; it comes from a good place, this notion that words are precious, that ideas are timeless.¬†McSweeney’s celebrate a books’ “objectness” the way Malevich did the canvas, while the internet denies words their physical counterpart. Electric Literature does something in between, and I’m still getting used to it. From books to the ideas therein, it’s hard not to fetishize it all.

I’m doing better now. A steady diet of cable television and a humiliating office job has turned me into the philistine I always wished I wasn’t. I’ve given up on Henry James just like he gave up on dieting. I finally got my one-night-stand, and she got a stalker for about 3 weeks afterward — but it had nothing to do with books, just looks. (The obsession ended when the burning sensation in my urethra did.) In our atomic path towards the stars, this lifetime just may be a one-night-stand, so wear a kingdom. As for what I’m reading now, it’s complicated.