The Clothing of Books, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Review by Deborah Karahalis

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(Vintage, 2016)

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent book is an 80-page memoir filled with deeply personal reflections on book covers and authors.  This novella started life as a lecture for a literary festival in Italy which Lahiri then expanded into a larger piece. This is Lahiri’s first book written in Italian. It was translated by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush.  Lahiri explores how a book cover impacts the potential reader and how the book cover reflects on the author; “The right cover is like a beautiful coat, elegant and warm, wrapping my words as they travel the world, on their way to keep their appointment with my readers.”

Lahiri’s exploration of the significance of book covers begins when she compares them to her own experiences of being the child of Indian immigrant parents who wished her to dress traditionally while she, a rebellious teenager in America, wanted to dress exactly like her friends; “When I was 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.” Lahiri envied the school uniforms worn in India by her cousins and often wished that book covers could be similarly simple and constant.

It was surprising to discover that authors have little control over the book jackets chosen for their work.  Also surprising was that many authors have little or no contact with the artists who are designing the covers.  Lahiri wonders if the artists even read the books before creating this vital connection to both the work and the marketability of the book. She admits to picking up books in used bookstores just based on the appeal of the cover.  In the modern world a cover can make or break the success of a new writer or a new novel.  Lahiri laments that we have left behind the quaint collaborations like the one between Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, in which Bell painted covers for each of Woolf’s first editions with Hogarth Press. Woolf and Bell could create covers to suit their taste and which were free from commercial or marketing worries. “We don’t live in a world in which one can simply reflect the sense and style of the book.  Today more than ever the cover shoulders an additional weight.  Its function is much more commercial than aesthetic.  It succeeds or fails in the market.”

For Lahiri, book covers are a defining aspect of the book itself and reflection of the author, whether the author had a choice in the cover or not. She explains that even if she does not like the publisher’s choice “the covers become a part of me.”  The Clothing of Books provides great insight into the process of designing book covers in the publishing industry as well as providing illumination into Lahiri’s own understanding of the relationship between an author and her book cover.

I must admit that I was influenced by the cover of Lahiri’s enlightening book and picked it up based on the quote found on the back “If the process of writing is a dream, the book cover represents the awakening.”

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