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Review of The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri: A meditation on book covers

books Updated: Mar 18, 2017 08:54 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Jhumpa Lahiri

Reading from cover to cover: Children immersed in their books at Green School in Badung, Bali, Indonesia. (Getty Images)

Jhumpa Lahiri’s previous book (her first foray into non-fiction) was a fascinating account of her arduous, frustrating-yet-rewarding attempt to learn to read and write in Italian. That book was written in Italian, and was published in Britain and America in bilingual (Italian and English) editions. Her new offering – conceived of as a lecture – is written in Italian too. Unlike its predecessor, it is translated into English by the author herself.

The Clothing of Books, as the title suggests, is a meditation on book covers: their relationship with the text; their aesthetic and commercial purposes; and, most importantly, their relationship with the writer and the reader.

Had she been allowed to design the cover of one of her books, Lahiri says she would have chosen a still life by Giorgio Morandi or a collage by Henri Matisse. “It would make no commercial sense, and would probably not mean anything to a reader.”

Quite so. As a result, Lahiri has an ambivalent relationship with the covers of her own books. There are several, it appears, that she detests. “How is it possible, I ask myself, that my book has been framed in such an ugly or banal way?” Every writer recognises that the first glimpse of the cover of one’s book is a significant moment in the journey of the book. It implies that what had hitherto been an intensely private process has begun to become public; it implies a relinquishing of control over the narrative; a handing over of the book – and of the labour behind it – to the world and its scrutiny.

Which is why writers I know, myself included, not merely care deeply about the covers of their books, but are intimately involved in their conception and execution. In this respect, Lahiri is different. She says she has not been in touch with those who design her covers. “I have never spoken with the designers of my covers. I don’t know them, I am not involved,” she writes. And while she frets when the cover is not a visual and symbolic representation of her text (who wouldn’t?), she feels fighting for the cover that would have been appropriate is a battle not worth picking.

Jhumpa Lahiri at a gala dinner in Rome, Italy on November 29, 2014. (Getty Images)

Lahiri is fond of what she calls the “naked book”: a cover adorned with only the author’s name, and the title, freighted with no other information, devoid of previous praise for the author or ringing endorsements of the volume in question. Such books, she says “gave nothing away in advance. To understand them, you had to read them… I miss the silence, the mystery of the naked book: solitary, without support… I believe that a naked book, too, can stand on its own feet.”

Read more: Excerpt: In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

In this very tradition, The Clothing of Books is very much a naked book. Its deep blue cover has only the title and the author’s name on it. Slender but not slight, a rumination on a subject that divides writers and readers, that is at once intrinsic and peripheral to a book, at its heart as well as outside its body, this luminous naked book stands perfectly well on its feet.