Four Insufferable Things About Books

A few of the cubbies in my apartment.

The last thing I want you to think is that I hate books. I love books, especially when they’re books and not text on a digital device. But here are four things that I think authors, designers and publishers really need to quit doing.

1)      Ill-chosen rave review quotations

Any book cover worth its salt has a prominent excerpt from some critic or notable reader who just loved the book. Newcomer authors are likened to somebody famous, with a few juicy adjectives thrown in.

See Jonathan Lethem on the cover of one of my favorite essay books, Sloane’s Crosley’s “I Was Told There’d Be Cake”:

“Sloane Crosley is another mordant and mercurial wit from the realm of Sedaris and Vowell.”

That’s how it should be done.

I read a lot of essays and non-fiction, and if I had my say, there is one word that should be permanently struck from all book covers. That is the word “readable”.

Observe the quotation on the book jacket of “Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream” by Edward Humes, one of my favorite nonfiction writers:

“An immensely readable account of one of the smartest, most workable projects our government ever thought up.”

To me, putting the word “readable” as praise on a book jacket is akin to beginning your cover letter with this phrase:

“I believe I am a good candidate for this job.”

Of course you believe that – why else would be sending your resume in? Why don’t you start by telling me something I don’t know?

Similarly, if you have written and then published a book, why oh why would you give space on the jacket to a reviewer saying that your book was “readable”? Of course the damn thing is readable, how else was it selected for publication, marketed and printed?

As a nonfiction enthusiast, I come across the word “readable” on a lot of book jackets. To me, it’s code for “yes, this topic is a slog, but somehow this writer makes it bearable.”

What, you thought a long travel memoir about the peripatetic 14th-century Moroccan, Abu Abdulla Muhammad Ibn Battuta, might be tough going? Nope, never fear: according to the cover, it’s quite “readable”!

2)      Cheap 19th-Century Classics With Ugly Paintings on the Cover

I understand they’re probably trying to keep the budget to a minimum on the design of these editions, and I’m happy they are – should my copy of “Jane Eyre” fall apart on my fifth or sixth reading, it’s good to know I can pick up a solid new one for seven or eight bucks.

But when this New York Times article about 21st-century teen-friendly updates to the covers of Austen and Brontë novels caught my eye, I was finally able to express what’s been bothering me about the old covers.

Sure, it’s neat to pair the book with a painting of a woman from roughly the same era as the book’s publication, give or take fifty years. But why must publishers consistently pick the strangest, dullest, homeliest ones possible?

A Barnes and Noble edition of “Pride and Prejudice”.

Who are these wan and dour ladies? Not Lizzie and Jane, surely. Who’s lurking behind them? Mr. Darcy? I think not.

A Dover Thrift edition of Jane Eyre

Who’s this? Bertha Mason? Jane has a bit more verve, as I recall.

A Barnes and Noble edition of “Persuasion”.

The pragmatic but sensitive Anne Elliot falls in love with a dashing young man, but her rude and foolish friends and family pressure her out of the marriage. Years later, the former lovers meet again and resolve not to pay any attention to each other…

A woman in what looks like a maid’s uniform slouching on the couch, reading a book by herself? Really, Barnes and Noble? You couldn’t come up with anything else to hint at Anne’s story?

These poorly-chosen images isolate their subjects from any greater context besides the visual message that This Story Is Old-Fashioned.

3)      Novels whose covers have a picture of an elegantly coiffed woman with her face turning away from the viewer.

“Who is this woman? She looks beautiful but I can’t quite see her face. Why is she turning away? She’s inscrutable yet dramatic. I will read this book to find out more about her.”

I bet these are the thoughts running through the minds of the buyers of the first fifty or so books which were published in the last few years with this type of image on the cover.

Can’t we think of something else?

Same goes for chick-lit historical fiction with cover art showing a lavishly dressed woman whose face is only one-third visible.

What, is it illegal to show a woman’s entire face on a book cover?

4)      “With a Preface by the Author” Fiction Editions

I just bought your book – why would I carp about your writing a preface?

Because you’re a successful novelist, not some Open Mic Night singer-songwriter regaling the audience with the story of How He Got The Idea For This Song while he tunes his guitar. I didn’t pick up your novel so I could spend the first chapter reading a self-indulgent mini-memoir about how nobody thought this book would come to be and lo and behold, it’s a best-seller.

I should note that I take less issue with an epilogue or concluding Author’s Note, should you feel that the story of how your novel was written merits some space between the covers. At least then I can finish the story and decide if I want to wade into your commentary, instead of facing a superfluous, mildly pretentious essay by you right off the bat, not knowing if it offers important context or if I can just proceed to the good stuff.

I’m looking at you, Ken Follett in “Pillars of the Earth”: a nine-page preface on how you conceived, researched and sold this novel, concluding with the insight, “Publishers, agents, critics, and the people who give out literary prizes generally overlooked this book, but you did not. You noticed that it was different and special, and you told your friends; and in the end the word got around”?

Your book is already long enough. I came here for some good fiction. Get on with it.

What annoys you about the books on your shelf?





Add yours →

  1. I agree with you on numbers 2 & 4. Recently I’ve been seeing some beautiful editions of these classics, so these bookshops really have no excuse to keep stocking them. And I don’t see the point of prefaces. People just want to get to the story!

    • I guess you could quibble about whether novels with a true-life/historical bent are more deserving of prefaces than others, but yes, in general, novels are for the story! Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Lethem’s cover statement sure wouldn’t make me read that book. It would make me put it right back down. The old adage: You can’t judge a book by its cover — or maybe its front, back or book jacket statements is true. Picking a book is very personal undertaking and different things are insufferable to readers. Besides I doubt you find many books in this world insufferable – remember, you wanted to live at the library!

    • Books have about the same risk of being insufferable as anything else, I sometimes find. I have started a lot of books only to toss them aside for something better.

  3. Good post!

    I think prefaces are warranted for new editions of already-successful books — the author (or whatever critic has the job) can look back, reflect on old times, and explain what the book meant for them and what relevance it still seems to have for readers. So long as it doesn’t spoil the story, it’s nice to have some historical context before reading. But for new fiction, I agree — the work should speak for itself.

    And I wholeheartedly agree about the cliches of book covers! Perhaps they show headless/faceless figures so the character can be better imagined by the reader. But it’s still a tired concept.

    • I hear you on the new edition vs. original edition question. Stephen King’s prefaces to the expanded re-issue of “The Stand” is a notable exception to my feelings on fiction prefaces.

      Thanks for weighing in!

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