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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