The Clothing of Books

Readers know not to judge a book by its cover. In The Clothing of Books, Jhumpa Lahiri (In Other Words) uses her experiences to reflect on the publishing industry's approach to--and emphasis on--cover art.

"I think that publishers today have overloaded covers with unreasonable expectations.... Book jackets are often blamed if a book doesn't sell. I often hear editors say, 'The book is beautiful. Too bad the cover was wrong.' To be badly dressed is always a condemnation."

Lahiri's parents often dressed her in unfashionable clothing; in this long-form essay, the Pulitzer Prize winner compares her childhood attire with her book covers, lamenting authors' lack of control over the design process and her displeasure at the results. ("I am forced, at times, to accept book jackets that I dislike, that I find problematic, disappointing.") Stereotypes are prevalent, with Lahiri's jackets featuring Indian symbols without considering that "the greater part of [her] stories are set in the United States and therefore pretty far from the river Ganges." Readers might be better served, she says, if covers were akin to school uniforms, allowing for equitable representation.

Originally written as a keynote speech for the Festival degli Scrittori in Florence, Italy, The Clothing of Books is more than personal criticism. Lahiri's viewpoint is bolstered with a brief history of the jacket's evolution and a look at how translations often beget dramatically different images. It will appeal most to savvy readers interested in the inner workings of publishing and its trends. --Melissa Firman, writer, editor and blogger at

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