In a treat for authors, celebrated writer Jhumpa Lahiri explores her relationship with them

By Ramesh Menon

When you buy a book, do you look at the way it has been clothed in a cover? How often does it decide if you would buy it or browse through it? How does a writer look at the cover of a book they have authored? Do we ultimately judge a book by its cover?  This and many other questions get answered in Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest offering, The Clothing of Books (Penguin). 

As you pick it up, you wonder why a celebrated author who won a Pulitzer Prize would want to write an exclusive book on what book jackets means to her, readers and writers. She gently explores her relationship with her book covers—sometimes as a writer and sometimes as a reader. She remembers vividly all the wonderful books she read and its covers that enthralled her. She unravels the complex relationship between text and image, between the designer and the author and the instant feelings on seeing the art work and how it changes as time passes. She acknowledges that sometimes it is a commercial decision taken by the publisher who has eyes fixated on sales and how writers end up having fights over the way the cover looks.  She talks of how ambivalent emotions take over when a new cover is being designed and is to arrive soon. She often frets feeling vulnerable about how the book will be criticized and analysed or even forgotten. She says: “My reactions are various, visceral. Covers can make me laugh or want to cry. They depress me, they confuse me, and they infuriate me. Some I can’t quite figure out, they leave me perplexed. How is it possible, I ask myself, that my book has been framed in such an ugly or banal way?”

How do we stack books on our bookshelves? We often stack it in a way that only the spine shows. But Lahiri would rather display them with the jacket fronts facing out rather than the spines.  She says that if kept in a row, books are discreet and reserved. But faced-out jackets are conversely extroverted, uninhibited and unique as they demand attention saying: Look at us.

She once saw one of her book covers in a bookshop and went excitedly to take a closer look only to discover that another publisher had used the same cover for another book for an author she did not even know.

Authors will understand every bit of the book, but ordinary readers who are enthralled with Lahiri’s earlier works of fiction like Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth and The Lowland, might find it disappointing as the award winning author is celebrated for her fiction.

We realize after reading the book that we never gave the cover so much of importance. But for Lahiri, it means the world: “A cover appears only when the book is finished, when it is about to come into the world. It marks the birth of the book and, therefore, the end of my creative endeavor. It confers on the book a mark of independence, a life of its own. It tells me that my work is done. So, while for the publishing house it signals the arrival of the book for me it is a farewell… If the process of writing is a dream, the book cover represents the awakening.”

(The Clothing of Books, 71 pages, by Jhumpa Lahiri is published by Penguin and priced at Rs 199)