It's time to order the books for my spring courses. Because I teach Victorian novels, I'm continually trying to negotiate length; how many pages can I coax my students to read a week (or rather from Thursday to Tuesday, and then from Tuesday to Thursday). This causes me to engage in one of my disingenuous teaching practices: searching for the shortest edition of David Copperfield, or Middlemarch. Yes, I realize that all unabridged versions are really the same number of total words. But tell that to students asked to read 250 pages instead of 150. Consider this: the Dover Thrift edition of David Copperfield (not my favorite edition) has 736 pages, while the Modern Library Classics is a whopping 896! At the rate my students read, that's an additional week of the semester.
While I usually choose the edition with the best notes, I wonder if students' experiences of these novels are affected at all by the covers. It sounds trivial, but who can curl up with the weighty onion-skin pages of the Norton Anthology of English Literature (volumes I or II!). And let's be honest, the cover affords our first impression; the physical object is our tactile contact with the text. When searching for new fiction to read (in addition to using the New York Times Book Review) I sometimes cruise up and down the bookstore shelves, picking out this and that, always glancing at the cover first, then reading the critical blurbs (if Amy Bloom likes it, it's a sure thing, not so much with Jody Picoult), then finally, reading the first two pages. I shy away from novels with pastels and flowery script.
When I decided to give Jane Eyre to my 11 year old god-daughter for Christmas, I wondered whether to buy the new Penguin classics Deluxe edition, with its mod cover by graphic artist Ruben Toledo, or the one showing a woman's red lips and red-nailed hands holding a red rose, a la Twilight? Since she doesn’t know me well enough to trust my taste, I worried that the stark Broadview cover with its dreary black and white photo might dissuade her from ever opening the book.
Lionel Shriver recently discussed the serious ramifications of her own books’ mis-packaging: “trussing up my novels as sweet, girly and soft is like stuffing a rottweiler in a dress.”
Books titles also implicate one in public. I found it impossible to carry If I'm So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single? in public. I've also made the mistake of giving my sister Peter Kramer's fascinating take on therapy, Should You Leave? in front of her husband. There are some books one should not read in front of one’s spouse.
There’s an etiquette of book placement as well. I refuse to sleep next to books of critical theory, nor would I put my self-help books in the living room. Which books do you display as part of your public persona, and which books remain hidden?