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Jhumpa Lahiri's reflections on book covers leave many questions unanswered

Wednesday - February 15, 2017 10:52 am , Category : OPINION & INTERVIEW
By Saket Suman : IANS

Book: The Clothing of Books; Author: Jhumpa Lahiri; Publisher: Penguin; Price: 199; Pages: 71

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri's latest book, at first glance, is a sort of soothing balm that brings much-needed relief in the non-fiction genre -- addressing a significant aspect of the publishing industry, ignored for far too long -- which instantly catches the imagination of readers. But, does the offering answer as many questions as it raises remains to be decided.

The axiom that advises readers not to judge a book by its cover finds a challenge in Lahiri's examination of book covers. And why not, if you look at the extent to which book covers have been decisive in the success, as also the failure, of books in contemporary times.

In short, the attention span of a normal reader is shrinking while the number of books on offer is multiplying manifold. Thus, the jacket plays a much more vital role today than it would have in the past. 

The author's clarity is commendable, her choice of diction and simple flow of words are sufficient to keep the readers involved for the duration of a 71-page-long quick read. But the offering, which is more of a lengthy essay, demands sincere and uninterrupted attention to understand the subtle yet complex issues around book covers that Lahiri explores.

Interestingly, the book begins on a rather unusual note, "The Charm of the Uniform". Lahiri recalls being fascinated by the school uniform of her cousins in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and was herself "tormented" by the freedom to wear whatever one wanted in her school in the US and says she would have preferred a uniform herself. 

But is the author hinting at some sort of uniformity in book covers? If so, what would be the ideal uniform for all books?

Lahiri reminds readers that her mother "barely tolerated my American clothes. She did not find my jeans or T-shirts cute. The older I grew, the more it mattered to her that I, too, wear Indian or, at the very least, concealing clothing. She held out for my becoming a Bengali woman like her."

This is customary for many Indian families. It is the context of book covers that lends an altogether different dimension to Lahiri's childhood protests against, both, freedom to wear what one wanted at school and her mother wanting her to wear concealing clothing.

Was it regressive for a mother to demand that her child wears only the "traditional clothing of her country" or was Lahiri's "American clothes", a normal result of her upbringing in the Western world? 

In any case, if the same formula is applied to the theme that Lahiri explores, one again falls short of answers.

On one hand, Lahiri is "discomforted" by the clothing that her mother wished her to adorn and, on the other, as a writer she feels "that a uniform would be the answer". These two statements are paradoxical, when applied to two different contexts.

If one has evolved and her dressing sense has changed, then why can't this also be said for books? The publishing industry is, after all, fast-evolving and the book cover today serves many more purposes than the uniform covers did in the past.

Lahiri laments that her book covers are not chosen by her and raises the more important issue of how the commercial models are causing havoc to the aesthetic values of the book covers. She dwells upon the depressing fact that while a terrifying number of books are published every year, only a handful are actually bought and read and thus the "publishers today have overloaded covers with unreasonable expectations".

"I am forced, at times, to accept book jackets that I dislike, that I find problematic, disappointing. I tend to give in. I say to myself, Let it go, it's not worth the battle. But I end up feeling afflicted, resentful," she mentions in the book.

Among other aspects of the book cover that disappoint her, one is that the jacket has become a label that lists ingredients. She insists that the first words readers come across in a book should be her own and not praise by other people.

Lahiri says that she would "certainly prefer the uniformed elegance of a series to an insipid cover" and calls for upholding aesthetic values of book covers.

Lastly, a word on the cover of "The Clothing of Books". A simple blue cover, displaying only the title and author's name, it just falls short of appearing elegant. It looks simple, unadorned and even undecorated. While this may not be among the eye-catchers in a bookstore displaying hundreds of books, it is perhaps close to how the author expects her book covers to be.
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