Judging by the cover

As I was listening to Black Stone Cherry’s once-overplayed-and-now-forgotten hit “Lonely Train” today, I was struck by the first line of the chorus. “Why,” I wondered, “can’t you judge a book by looking at the cover?” Is that not, in fact, precisely how we make most of our judgments regarding the initial acquisition of published reading materials? I know it is for me.

If five years in retail book selling taught me anything, it was that publishers put those covers together the way they did for a reason. “What a smart cover!” we would exclaim as we unpacked a carton of the new paperback edition of a local author’s literary fiction debut, now repackaged as beach-read/chick-lit. We recognized that artistically it was a horrible come-down from what had been a visually striking hardcover. But we also recognized that this was a package that would sell, one that a certain category of readers would look at and judge worth buying. Conversely, many of us had books we had read and loved, but bemoaned that we couldn’t effectively promote them to shoppers due to the variously dull or off-putting cover design. It’s a habit I still have: every time one of my professors brandishes his original copy of Ben Meyer’s 1971 book The Church in Three Tenses prior to reading us an excerpt, I cringe at the atrociously cheesy cover of the volume.

But I suspect that the aphorism is not really about the publishing industry at all. I would be willing to wager that what is meant by the phrase, in typical parlance, has little to do with “bound papery objects” and much to do with people, and our judgment of our fellows. But even if we strip away the poetic image and put it baldly — don’t judge people by their appearance — is that really legitimate, either? It sounds good, but how applicable is it, really, in practice? Charitable, yes; realistic, no.

It has been observed before now that I come off a bit cynical now and then. As Ambrose Bierce so beautifully put it, a cynic is “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” Given that definition, I am pretty happy counting myself under that heading. I still have my idealism, certainly; I think you will see plenty of it in these pages. But I also tire of belaboring ideals that have been too long sealed in a vacuum.

I know pop songs are, with many notable exceptions, typically capable of little beyond clever aphorism, it is still a little disappointing to me every time it happens. Even if we finally leave the literal reading completely behind, it still isn’t true. We make judgments about the people we encounter every moment of every day, often without any interaction beyond an initial visual assessment.

Are these snap judgments always just and fair? Of course not; they are based on next to no specific evidence. But neither can one argue that they are always completely flawed and erroneous; they are informed by the individual’s lifetime of experience up to that point. I would agree that it is patently uncharitable to hold to an unfounded judgment of a person, or to act extensively and protractedly on the grounds of such impressions. But to deny that such snap judgments are a real — and vital — aspect of daily social interaction is, well, to be writing pop songs.

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