How to Judge a Book by Its Cover

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. There. I said it. I told myself this was not my battle, that I should remain an casual observer rather than a participant. But the debate rages on, and I can’t help myself.

In what I assume (in my limited knowledge of the publishing world) to be true publishing style, the book has been re-released with a new cover, informing those of us who might not have been aware before that this is, indeed, an anniversary edition. No problems so far.

Yeah, right.

Critics, teachers, readers, and writers have latched onto the cover with steely fervor, berating it as misleading, confusing, and contradictory. Readers, they fear, will think The Bell Jar is nothing but chick lit, a “light and fluffy read.” The cover gives the wrong impression, they say. The book has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with angst. It is an offense to Plath as an author and an offense to The Bell Jar as a literary work.

I see the merit of these arguments. However, I think we’re all being nearsighted. We are missing the point.

Shouldn’t we instead be focusing on the fact that after fifty years readers still find The Bell Jar hauntingly relevant, that despite the social changes that have occurred readers still find something with which they identify? There’s something to be said for the fortitude of such a book, published first under a pseudonym. Instead of focusing on the book’s cover, can we instead give readers the benefit of the doubt? Can we allow the unknowing to make the glorious mistake of stumbling accidentally, if that is possible, onto a work from which they might otherwise have shied away? Critics of the cover seem to be under the impression that readers today are not discerning enough to know what The Bell Jar is, that readers today cannot read the blurb on the back of the book (or inside the front cover flap) and tell that Plath’s work is not a sip-on-a-soda-and-read time killer. 

I find it odd that in a culture that so values the don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover mantra for every other aspect of life we so willingly embrace that judgement when it comes to actual books. There is a lot to be said for a cover, yes. And generally speaking it is, perhaps, the first thing to which we are drawn. That, however, does not form the only basis on which we choose what we read. It does not negate the reader’s ability to distinguish content from presentation. 

I say that to say this: given that Plath’s novel has withstood fifty years of readership and criticism, it is possible that we are allowing the cover too much importance. For some the cover will never be right; certain people will always be finding fault. And while the cover is a visual representation of the novel, it is not the novel itself. The Bell Jar can and will speak for itself, whether it is accidentally or deliberately read. 

 


In Praise of Profession

Most of us begin our adult lives with some vague optimism about the future. Even if things aren’t ideal in the beginning, we reason, surely the harder we work the better life will be. Growing up we all harbor some deep-seated hope that our jobs, whatever they may be, will in some way influence the world for good. We are told to dream–dream big, dream often, don’t stop–and we begin to believe in ourselves.

The truth is that most of us, upon being launched into adulthood, become satisfied with jobs that pay the bills. World changing? Perhaps not. Life-altering? Yeah, potentially. We trudge through each day, each week, paying the bills and wondering what all that dreaming was for. But a lucky few are able to carve out more than that for themselves. For some of us, reality and occupation are not combatants. Rather they coexist, and we are able to have one without falling prey to the other.

Arguably, no one ever goes into teaching for the money. Education is seldom, if ever, championed as a lucrative career choice. But I would argue that those of us who have chosen this profession have duped the rest of the world. Ours is a secret so delicious it must be told. 

Every day I go into a classroom where I sit with my books. Some of these books have been with me for awhile, since I was a student myself. They are worn; they are tattered and coffee-stained. They are old friends, keepers of solace. I go into a classroom with my books, and there are students there waiting for me, waiting for me to tell them what’s in the books. But instead of dryly delivering information for them to file away and regurgitate later, we have conversations. We talk about theme and plot and symbolism and all the things that make my books tick. And my students begin to know what they’re doing. When my day is finished, I find myself sitting at a desk trying to figure out when the actual work is going to begin.

Being a teacher is like being on the inside of a joke. The powers-that-be couldn’t possibly know what I do for my paycheck. Of course they don’t; if they knew how much fun I was having they probably wouldn’t let me do it anymore. I don’t mean to suggest that being a teacher is not without its problems. Anyone who has ever done it or tried to do it before will tell you that it’s tough. The grading and the grade-grubbing and the constant reminders that our work will never be done are, at times, maddening. Then payday roles around, and for one brief moment we all feel like the joke’s on us.

But at the end of the day it is my job, it is my occupation, to go into a classroom and discuss “Jabberwocky.” It is my job to watch my students develop confidence in themselves, my job to watch them come to appreciate and love the very same books that have meant so much to me, my job to help them find their own voice and figure out what to say and how to write with it. And while no job is without its problems, it’s not a bad way to earn a living.