What Do We Read When We Read?

Go ahead, judge a book by its cover. That’s why it has one.

What is a book? If we slow down and dig into it, it becomes a pretty interesting question.

For the most part, writers don’t deal with books. We deal with words and stories and ideas. And we don’t really have a great term for what the thing is while it’s emerging. It’s not really a manuscript until it’s done and sent away for consideration. It’s not really a piece—”I need a five-hundred word piece on the hottest bands in Cleveland”—unless someone else commissions it. (It’s called a piece in the artistic trades because the editor or curator or theater director needs it as a piece of their larger vision.) And while it ferments on my hard drive in Microsoft Word, it absolutely is not a book. It’s a thing, I guess.

The thing only becomes a book after somebody else bolts some other stuff onto it, what literary analysts have come to call the paratext. The Word file gets redesigned into a page layout, with typefaces and line spacings and margins set to something other than the 8.5×11 that office supplies default to. (You NEVER see an 8.5×11 book anymore, just some leftover hippie things from the 1970s that started their lives at Kinko’s.) The “trim size” of the finished book is its own graphic question, unique to every book, which is why your bookshelf doesn’t align evenly.

Once we know what the pages look like, we then need to decide on the paper we’ll print on, and the binding method that replaces the high-school staple in the upper-left corner. The number of pages determines the thickness of the spine, which we’ll come back to in a minute.

But we’re not done with the body of the thing yet. If nothing else, there’ll be an inner page (recto, or on the right side when the book is open) that reiterates the title and the author, and then usually the back of that same sheet (verso, or on the left side) known as the title page, that includes the book title, the author, the publisher, the ISBN and the Library of Congress call number and the copyright date and the current edition and any necessary disclaimers about accuracy or verisimilitude. (This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.)

The title page is the statement that this thing is now A Serious Book, which has become part of The Permanent Record.

And then we have the cover. Jhumpa Lahiri, in her marvelous little book The Clothing of Books, has covered most of the important ground here, about the ways that the author has lost control of the storytelling, that the graphic artists and marketers have turned the words into a product that fits into the expectations of “similar” products. About the ways that the author photo (alas) weaves the anonymous words into a personal relationship with a writer alternately young, middle-aged, old, female, male, nonbinary, pretty, homely, serious, amusing.

But a self-published writer (an abysmal term that sounds just as masturbatory as the practice may in fact be) gets more control over the wrapper. We still adhere to some of the conventions, though, we know the visual rhetoric from having consumed so many books ourselves. We choose or design a graphic that isn’t an illustration of a scene from the book, but which attempts to set an emotional tone. The abandoned factory acting as a shorthand for an entire crushed city. A disco ball to suggest the plasticized artifice of nightclubs and the era of the 1970s. An endless scatter of papers reflecting the way we feel when we contribute our own leaf to the unraked lawn. The cover is doing evocative rather than narrative work.

The title is bigger than the author’s name, because the author is an unknown whose name isn’t going to sell anything. Wait until you’re John Grisham or Janet Evanovich to blow up your name, hero. So there’s the title, the work of which is also evocative, emotional. Of all the things I’ve written, their titles fall into a few camps:

  • A single word (Leopard, Slush, Red)
  • A single word with an article (The Host, The List, The Test, The PhDictionary)
  • The ___ of ___ (The Abbot of Saginaw, The Opposite of Control)
  • Adjective/noun (Misplaced Persons, Trailing Spouse, The Adjunct Underclass, The City Killers)

It’s an art form that demands economy.

The back cover is also visual and evocative, but it oughtn’t to just be a repeat of the front, that’d be a lost opportunity. So it becomes its own independent graphic design question, its own visual enticement. But that graphic design is now put to service of some more overt promises about what the reader will encounter. That can take a couple of forms. One is the two or three paragraph summation, the pitch that introduces the character, the setting, and the problem. The other is the stack of blurbs, the collective hysteria that urges us to join the mob.

And then, there’s the spine. Book spines are under-appreciated in the lay world, but they do a vast amount of work in a tiny ribbon. When the book is on a shelf, whether at home or in a store, the spine is doing all the work there is to be done. It acts as identifier, as mnemonic aid (I think it has a green cover), and as bait all at once.

It usually carries over the graphic language of the front cover. Here’s an example, from my most recent book & Sons.

The illustration of the rusting galvanized sheets with riveted seams carries over from the front cover, as does the unobtrusive typeface (Didot) for my name, and the “fancy” typeface for the book title that would have been used by a sign painter in the midwest for the family business, Barrows & Sons. As was true for the cover, the title is reduced to semi-transparent so that some of the rust marks show through it, as they would with a painted name on a silo or a truck door. That little band, five-eighths of an inch across, has some pretty mighty responsibilities.

After all that—the page layout, the cover, the printing, the spine, all of it—the thing has become the book in our hands. Its corners hard and sharp, its pages die-cut to riffle like a deck of cards. For the first time in the thing’s life, the logic of moving forward through the story becomes that of turning pages rather than scrolling on a screen.

But we’re not done pre-reading it yet. More paratext tomorrow.

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