Monday 28 November 2016

Dressing Books

In 2015 Jhumpa Lahiri gave the keynote speech to the Festival degli Scrittori, the Florence literary festival. Her chosen topic, and obviously one dear to my own heart, was "the clothing of books"--a writer's view on the design of book covers and the conflicts between authors and marketers. Now her talk has been turned into a book itself, a short and attractive paperback from vintage US.

(Cover design by Joan Wong (with thanks to Aldrin for this info).)

Lahiri's talk begins from her own experiences as the child of immigrants, always dressed incorrectly in clothes that are durable but out of fashion, marking her out as an Indian amongst Americans. And her own experiences with the covers for her books are not much better, leading her to want to abandon individual cover designs altogether: "most of my book jackets don't fit me, which is why I sometimes think, as a writer too, that a uniform would be the answer." She is also lucky enough to be an author published in many languages across the world, which exposes her to different cultures' attempts to encapsulate her books in different ways. Unfortunately this all too often seems to end up with the decision to slap a picture of a sari on the front (see this related post).

It's a thoughtful and enjoyable book, but also one slightly hurt by its failure to include images of any of the covers Lahiri talks about; and her own descriptions are often too vague for even a thorough Googling to determine which covers she means in any particular instance--especially one which she describes "a certain awful cover for one of my books that elicits in me an almost violent response. Each time I am asked to autograph that edition, I feel the impulse to rip the cover off the book." I want to know what cover she means!

It's not just her books that suffer from visual misrepresentation. When Lahiri's previous book came out, a portrait of her featured on the front cover of The New York Review of Books. Lahiri is a perfectly normal looking person... quite why she ended up depicted like this is a surprise.

My three-year-old daughter insisted I turn the magazine face-down because "she looks like a witch!" and it was frightening her while she was trying to eat her breakfast.


Aldrin said...

The back flap of my copy indicates the cover designer as Joan Wong.

JRSM said...

Ah, thank you: I will fix the post. I got a proof that didn't have the info, and the final physical book is not yet available in Australia.

Unknown said...

"We need a caricature of Jhumpa Lahiri."
"Sure, what does she look like?"
"An Indian Katie Holmes."
"Say no more!"

JRSM said...

Haha, yes. An Indian Kate Holmes who hasn't slept in six years.