Judging a cover by its text

Jhumpa Lahiri explains why the first time she sees a cover for her books is always upsetting

January 29, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 02:20 am IST

It never fails to shock or thrill me when I see a new, re-jacketed edition of a favourite book. And in this age of rapid re-jacketing, with publishers more keenly aware of the power of cover design to attract the reader to a book and perhaps away from its e-book variant, it’s a trick that keeps giving. Chancing upon a new cover for a much-read book in a bookshop or a library will stop me in my tracks to at least browse for a few minutes, making fresh acquaintance with a familiar text. Sometimes it’ll invite a deeper, even different reading of the book; at other times it’ll disorient me enough to go right back to the original edition; and, of course, most times it will be just a few minutes meditatively spent but without changing my longer engagement with the book. All told, it’s yet another nudge to consider a little appreciated aspect of the reading experience, the book cover.

As Roberto Calasso, the legendary Italian publisher, wrote in The Art of the Publisher , the cover must draw in the potential reader and also meet the expectations of the reader who has already read the book, that is, someone now in a position to judge the cover by the book.

A writer’s reaction

Jhumpa Lahiri comes to the subject of covers in a slim new book, The Clothing of Books (Penguin), more from the point of view of a writer than a reader. “The first time I see one of my covers,” she writes, “while thrilling, is always upsetting. No matter how effective or intriguing it may be, there always exists, between us, a disconnect, a disequilibrium. The cover already knows my book, while I have yet to make its acquaintance… My reactions are various, visceral.”

The cover, she notes, is the text’s “first interpretation”. “It represents a collective reading by the book designer and various people at the publishing house”, and its finalisation is a signal that the book is about to make its way in the world, to be read, analysed, appreciated, critiqued, ignored. The cover is intimately connected to the book, yet it is separate, so that “one can love the cover and hate the book, or vice versa”.

Later in this 71-page book, Lahiri recounts an unsettling episode. She notes how even when she does not like a jacket for a book of hers, she does eventually establish a sense of connection to it: “Over time, the covers become a part of me, and I identify with them.” It was thus that she found herself “dumbfounded” when she received the Italian edition of a book by “a writer of Indian origin” that was identical to the American cover of her first book of short stories ( Interpreter of Maladies ). So much for a cover being a customised interpretation of a text.

The Italian connection

The Clothing of Books is also a reminder of how Lahiri’s writing has been transformed by her decision, some time back, to move to Rome and learn Italian. It’s an experience she wrote about in her first book of non-fiction, In Other Words . In Rome, Lahiri gradually immersed herself in Italian, to the extent that once she had finished writing The Lowland , her last novel, she began writing only in Italian. In Other Words was a translation into English, by Ann Goldstein, of Lahiri’s Italian original. She refrained from translating it into English, a language in which she had written prize-winning fiction, herself. As she wrote then: “Had I translated this book, the temptation would have been to improve it, to make it stronger by means of my stronger language. But I wanted the translation of In altre parole [the Italian original] to render my Italian honestly, without smoothing out its rough edges, without neutralising its oddness, without manipulating its character.”

It was almost as if the process of articulating her thoughts in a new, till now foreign language, the fumbling for the right word forced her to shed her reserve. Everything became personal, all writing a memoir. So it is with this book. The Clothing of Books was written in Italian. It was translated into English by her husband, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush. Later she worked on the translation. Thereafter: “Back in Rome, after slightly modifying the translation, after correcting a couple of mistakes and adding one or two new thoughts, I had to rework the Italian text, translating myself, this time from English, in order to arrive at the final version.” In a way, this meditation on covers is therefore part of Lahiri’s evolution as a writer. As a reader, you can’t but think that this essay/book would not have been written were she still writing in the language she’s most fluent in.


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