To Judge A Book By Its Cover

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

–Ernest Hemingway

Back in his alcohol-laden heyday, Earnest Hemingway popularized a style called The Iceberg Theory. Like an iceberg, he submerged the context of his stories beneath the surface of the page. In scrutinizing what lay exposed, an astute reader would be able to glean insight into what was omitted as clearly as if he had included it. Dig deeper and you’d always find something buried.

This style of writing accomplished two purposes: Hemingway was able to emphasize what he considered most essential to the story, and his readers enjoyed the process of constructing a meaningful whole based on their experience with the words on the page. The dignity of his writing lay in the simplicity of its plot. Only the hardest facts mattered. Hemingway understood that you could speculate on details not explicitly spelled out from the fragments that are.

Today, in a society where “judgment” is a dirty word, we condemn this theory. Focus on a cover and you’ll miss what it’s covering. It is wrong to summarize a story from its surface the same way it is wrong to characterize an individual by his exterior, because the rest- the inner beauty, what really matters, etc. – hides inaccessible to our shallow eyes. Appearances are only the tip of the iceberg, superficial masks of the infinite depths of what might lie beneath.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, they say! There are like, lots of pages in the middle! Shame on him who takes a look and pretends he knows what it’s all about. Well, I wouldn’t look at a book and then go try to write a paper on it, but have you ever been to a library? There are like, a lot of books out there. Like, a lot a lot. How can one be expected to devote the hours to judge them independently on their depth and merit?  Do you plan on reading all of them?

Let’s pretend for a moment that your name is Elizabeth Gilbert and you’ve just written a book called Eat, Pray, Love:  a heartwarming story of one woman’s global search for true romance.  I, your publisher (you idiot), place two copies of your book in front of you. The first displays the three title words in fonts that playfully suit each word. The second has the same three words, only this time they are encircling a Roman orgy under a fountain of a busty Aphrodite giving a good ole’ fashioned to Zeus and his thunderbolt of an erection. “Mrs. Gilbert,” I say to you, “which of these covers would you rather see dress your new bestseller before it hits the shelves?” Don’t judge a book by its cover, you say? Zeus penis it is. Serves you right for choosing me as your publisher…

One might argue that covers are marketing tools, and they’ve got nothing to do with the actual content of what’s on the page, or that the way people dress, walk, and posture has nothing to do with who they are as human beings. If covers are advertisements, merely meant to interest you in what is bound between, what demographic do they aim to speak to? What statement are that outfit and that haircut trying to make? You wouldn’t throw a dinosaur on the front of a Bible for the same reason you wouldn’t wear tie-dye and Birkenstocks to an interview (unless, of course, you are interviewing at Ben & Jerry’s).

Covers matter. They give us insight into what lies hidden beneath the surface, and when we only have a second or two to make a decision, they are all we have. If your first impression of someone is strong, trust your judgment. Appearances are factors of decisions and reflections of character. Avoid making sweeping generalizations about people based only on their “type,” but see them as individuals who dress and talk the way they do because those are components of who they are as human beings.

There is not enough time to examine every story you come across. Sometimes you only have a few minutes to scan the pages, and if you’re not so lucky, sometimes a glance at the cover, the tip of that iceberg, will have to do.  Much will go unnoticed, but you can begin to learn about people by the way they chose to present themselves. The dude with dreadlocks and eyeliner in the Alabama Thunderpussy t-shirt sitting on the floor of the subway might be a jazz pianist and an accomplished Rhodes Scholar, but he’s probably not.

Judge away, I say! In this trivial world we live in, if Elizabeth Gilbert had chosen that other cover, Eat, Pray, Love probably wouldn’t have been the bestseller it is today. Hell, maybe it would have sold even better. What do I know? I’m just your imaginary publisher.

 

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