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The Clothing of Books


The Clothing of Books

THE CLOTHING OF BOOKS is about looking beneath the surface, and that one cannot judge a book by its cover --- the symbolic style of clothing it wears. Though author Jhumpa Lahiri warns that the covers become a part of her.

Thoughtfully written with few wasted words, THE CLOTHING OF BOOKS discusses a variety of topics, including the visual language of the cover, the form of the dust jacket, and “the naked book” by the removal of former embellishments. Lahiri’s experience with the topic begins on a journey back to her childhood while visiting her father’s family in Calcutta, India. Each morning her cousins had to dress in their uniforms for school, while she as a tourist could remain in her regular clothes. Then, growing up as a Bengali Indian-American with immigrant parents, she was aware of how others’ perceptions were different between her wearing jeans and t-shirts and her mother wearing her country’s traditional clothes. There were great similarities among her, her cousins, and her parents, though because of their clothing they were viewed contrastingly.

"Thoughtfully written with few wasted words, THE CLOTHING OF BOOKS discusses a variety of topics, including the visual language of the cover, the form of the dust jacket, and 'the naked book' by the removal of former embellishments."

While the concept of THE CLOTHING OF BOOKS may have roots in Lahiri’s early years, it is her expertise as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author that informs readers how the covers of her books impact the assessments of their internal contents. They even impress her identity personally. In fact, she cannot help but closely identify with many of her covers as time proceeds. There is often an initial dissociation Lahiri feels about her book covers, because it is as if “the cover already knows my book, while I have yet to make its acquaintance.” She knows that what is internal is not understandable by making simple and swift assumptions due to what appears on the surface. Often, she does not have any personal control over what appears on the cover, and can only request minor additions, much like how people can choose their clothing yet not control the condition of their birth.

Lahiri explains that the wrong kind of cover is like wearing clothing that does not fit, while the right cover is a warm coat giving one the comfort and confidence to travel the world. There is no perfect cover, and covers can be misleading. There is no wholly good or bad cover, and the cover of a book can either give boundless insight or none at all. The experience can be utterly oblique. This is the mode of philosophical musing in which Lahiri partakes and what makes up a large portion of her book.

THE CLOTHING OF BOOKS neither embraces the idea that the cover of a book is a useful window into what is inside, nor does it reject that notion. Lahiri may not be in love with the cover of every book published in her name, but she shows how the concept of the cover is something to deeply think about, because it shapes her own image as much as it shapes the image of her books. Even for a celebrated author, many parts of the publishing experience are beyond her control. If we all put more thought into perception versus reality, and compare the surface to what is inside, Lahiri proposes that we would all be better off as readers and people.

Reviewed by John Bentlyewski on November 18, 2016

The Clothing of Books
by Jhumpa Lahiri

  • Publication Date: November 15, 2016
  • Genres: Literary Criticism, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 80 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0525432752
  • ISBN-13: 9780525432753