Yesterday I was introduced to The Book Den of Santa Barbara, which is the best bookstore I’ve ever been in. It had the perfect blend of interesting new books and beautiful used books, and if I ever have a house with a library, I would happily fill it up there.
While browsing, I began to ponder whether the phrase “judging a book by its cover” isn’t a little too narrow.
When I was no older than thirteen, I would pester my mom to take me to the book store so I could buy books you wouldn’t expect to even be on the radar of a tween: collections of Jane Austen’s lesser and unfinished novels; Tales of a Wayside Inn; Moby Dick; Camilla. (Austen references Camilla in Northanger Abbey so clearly I must read it, and I did, all 913 pages. It still tickles me that, a decade later, a literary roommate saw it on my bookshelf and was hugely impressed. “My professor always said that if we were really serious about literature we would read Camilla,” she explained.)
“Literature,” then, was always something of a hallowed concept for me. At our local Borders, amidst the sections devoted to history and biography, mystery and young adult, there was a whole section called “literature”. Naively assuming an author must meet some elevated standard to be included there with the classics, I was wildly impressed.
And then I was disappointed. At some point, after picking up countless of these novels and having reactions ranging all the way down to disgust, it dawned on me that this was the catch-all section. This was the section for books that didn’t fit into any of the accepted genres. This was the section for writers with literary aspirations – most of which they could never hope to meet.
A snobbish reaction? Yes, most likely. But I was upset by the failure to distinguish between great and bad and only so-so. Confronted with an entire bookstore, how was I supposed to know what was worth the time to read? The result was that for many years, when confronted with modern books with “literary” titles, I instinctively shrank away in horror.
But as I looked at the rows of titles yesterday I finally realized what a useless distinction that is. Many of the classic titles – Portrait of a Lady, Tender is the Night, The Age of Innocence, War and Peace, The Eternal Husband – sound much like the modern titles. The difference, at least for me, is that the classic titles are irrelevant; they have no independent meaning. I know that they are classic, so the titles are just the way of distinguishing one classic from another in my mental index.
And yes, that is definitely snobbish.
For years I have proudly declared that I always judge books by their covers (and, apparently, their titles), and that it works. That is, when I do pick up a book, I nearly always like it. But there is no way of knowing how often the reverse is true. How many of the books I don’t pick up would I like?
Confronted by an entire bookstore (and, now, internet!) of books to read, I may continue with this method. After all, there is limited time and everything has to be prioritized somehow, and there is nothing wrong with that. But I will make an effort not to assume the worst about a novel just because it is modern and has an interesting title. That is simply small-minded.