Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The pretty books are the best books

If books were men, I’d be a total whore. Truly. I’m like Burgess Meredith (always the first codger who leaps to mind when the word “whore” is used) in that Twilight Zone episode where all humankind is wiped out, and he’s fine with it because he finally, finally has a chance to read uninterrupted. In fact, growing up, that episode traumatized me enormously – I would cry each time I saw his glasses break, unable to imagine a worse fate than being surrounded by all those books and never being able to enjoy them. (Rod Serling, you dark-souled bastard!)

In college, when other girls talked about their deep dark fantasies – “I want to be trapped in an elevator with a mysterious stranger” or “I want to be caught alone behind the grandstand with a mysterious stranger,” I would always nod silently, pretending to empathize when really all I was thinking was, “What the hell?” Of course, that was what they were thinking after two bottles of Boone’s Farm and a tendency toward confession inevitably led me to reveal my own deep dark fantasy: “I want to be trapped…in the classical history section of Barnes and Noble. With a highlighter.”

“And a mysterious man?” they’d ask hopefully.

“Is he carrying a good reading lamp?”

And then somehow I’d never get invited back. But whatever. This is just my long way of saying, I’m literature’s bitch. And I blame it all on the book cover designers. The ugly truth is that I’m drawn to the shallow end of the book-buying pool. I want my books, like my men, to be quiet and to not smell like mold and not give me papercuts. But mostly, I just want them to be pretty.

The other day, I had Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, in my hands at Barnes and Noble. I read the first ten pages. I loved it. I was ready to lay out my $14 but as I walked toward the front of the store, I saw that the same book was on sale for $3 less but in a different edition. While the edition in my hand had a beautiful, delicate cover, the sale version had the movie poster, all bombastic and overwrought, with a big picture of Kal Penn smack dab in the middle. Despite the presence of Kal, who is dreamy, the cover was hideous and the paper quality seemed poor. I stood there debating – do I save $3 and try to live with an ugly cover or do I behave like an incredible idiot and pay $3 more just to have the pretty? The inner turmoil was too much. I put both copies down and bought a beautiful new novel whose title I can’t remember because once I got it home, I realized it wasn’t any good. Attractive but dumb – just like every guy I dated in tenth grade.

My home library is filled with books like that – gorgeous covers that conceal books in which I have very little interest. At times, though, I must admit that buying those books actually has opened new doors for me, expanding vistas I otherwise might never have explored. I know an awful lot about the aftermath of World War I because of the elegant imagery on the cover of Margaret MacMillan’s book, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. I know about Ernest Shackleton and I know about the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and the odd but enduring friendship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt – all because I couldn’t say no to a book’s pretty face.

The lesson here, if there is one, is that maybe I shouldn’t always dismiss the value of my shallow side. For every accidentally-read chick-lit tome, there’s an Everything Is Illuminated or a complete collection of Dorothy Parker stories to be discovered and savored. That seems like something with which even my college fantasy man – the one with the really good reading lamp in that dark Barnes and Noble aisle – could agree.


Kevin Church said...

I've got four different editions of Working by Studs Terkel.

I know exactly what you're talking about.

Liz said...

Kevin -- It's good to know I'm not alone!

Steve B said...

I was always like this. Remember when I worked at Borders I would only buy books that were published by Vintage becuase they looked good. You would tell me to read so and so and I wouldn't for the simple fact the book looked ugly or it was a Mass Market book.

I always judged a book by it's cover, just like I judge people I see walking down the street or in the mall. It's the only way to know what to expect.

katharine said...

No way are you alone; I am a choosy slut of books, judging not only covers but fonts and weight, and coveting any edition that includes the words annotated, illustrated, anniversary, oversize, absolute, special, or first. I also like it when books come in slip cover boxes, or have those little ribbon placemarkers. Oh, and French flaps. Damn those Fench flaps. I know have two editions each of Alan Moore's From Hell now because of French flaps.

And I had problems with sharing the deep dark fantasies; where others were content with something like "He makes a lot of money and cooks and buys me flowers and shoes. Oh, and he's pretty", I would launch into something "He's part Henry DeTamble from The Time Traveler's Wife but without the Chrono-Displacement Disorder (but if he traveled space and time like Dr. Who, that'd be great), part Mr. Darcy, that goes without saying, part Robert Benchley, because he was a charming writer and seemed like such a nice friend to Dorothy Parker, and maybe a little Petruchio from Taming of the Shrew but only if it was Raul Julia's performance of him. Oh, and he's pretty. And plays guitar"

Whoever I was trying to tell all this to would usually cut me off halfway, because they either had no idea what I was talking about or thought I was asking for too much. Or both. The mild social despair that this caused usually just drove me to buy more books.

Liz said...

Katharine, I think we must be separated at birth. I'm exactly the same way. And hello, by the way, to a fellow Robert Benchley fan. I love that man.

Liz said...

Hello Mr. Steve B -- You always managed to find good books though based just on the covers. I was always very impressed.

nbremer said...

I have three editions of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Kate said...

You really CAN'T judge a book sometimes, you know? There's seriously a skillion covers out there by the guy who did covers for Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series and I just want to thump them all.

...Not that I liked Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. But when we could have Monica Furlong's "Juniper" cover, why have 8 squintillion covers that all look exactly the same?