Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Judging Books by Their Covers

So it’s been a rough two-and-a-half months (that's about the time since my last post). The post-surgery complication I’d been dealing with—chylous ascites, or fluid collection in the abdomen—didn’t resolve as quickly as either my doctors or I had hoped. During this time, I’ve been on a strict no-fat diet and been pretty uncomfortable (massive fluid collection will do that). To be honest, right now I don’t feel like reliving this time, except to say these few things:

I’ll never again take for granted putting on my own shoes and socks, going to the bathroom (normally), and taking a nice deep breath.

A no-fat diet is brutal.

A no-fat diet for two and a half months is very brutal.

A no-fat diet for two and a half months when you’re having bi-weekly drainings (“paracentesis,” for all you medical procedure junkies) to the tune of six and seven and even nine liters of liquid is very, very brutal.

For most of the past several weeks, I’ve felt like this (minus the purple):

Incidentally, a recurring scene for me since last October has been a doctor outlining some new thing to be done to my body and then finishing with the sentence, “It’s a fairly simple procedure” (the one exception to this was my RPLND surgery, which my surgeon told me was “high risk”). Anyway, my response to “It’s a fairly simple procedure” is “Every procedure is simple when it’s not happening to you.”

I’m over all of this now—I’m no longer eating egg whites and beans as my main source of protein, I’m no longer leaking like the Cubs infield, and I’m no longer waddling around like the Penguin. Instead, I’m focused on trying to gain back the thirty or so pounds that I’ve lost, so there may be a fetishistically-rendered food post in the near future.

I’ll write about these post-surgery weeks at some point, but right now I’d rather start a new story.

Which brings me to books. Or rather, to book covers.

The other day I was in Target when I wandered by a book rack and saw that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl—a novel I’d been eager to read—had finally come out in paperback. What’s more, the cover was a reproduction of the original hardcover’s—stark, black with red lettering, with a few stray wisps of hair invading the image from the left. Overall, a sleek and intriguing cover.

I bought it immediately, but not just because I’d been waiting for the paperback. The bigger reason was that I didn’t want to get stuck later with a “movie” cover that will no doubt feature Ben Affleck’s impossibly square jaw.

Which brings us to what is perhaps my top pet peeve.

There are many bad people in the world, and for the most part, we have punishments in place to deal with their bad deeds. But there is one group of evildoers that have for far too long gone unpunished.

The people responsible for movie tie-in covers.

I find few things more depressing than seeing some movie star’s picture plastered on the front of a book cover. This one here, for instance, makes me throw up a little bit in my mouth every time I see it:

Despite what Ruth Graham wrote earlier this week aboutadults reading young adult novels, I really want to read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. But I will say this: if the only copy I can get my hands on has Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort looking at each other all googly-eyed on the front cover, then I think I’ll pass.


Does this sound unreasonable? I don’t care.

“But how,” one might ask, “can the cover possibly change the words inside? Isn’t it the same book?”

No, it’s not. Books with movie covers are different because those covers change our experience of reading them. First, those covers remind us that the story inside is a commodity, and once you finish it, you’re ready to consume it in yet another venue—your local movie theater. And second, those covers affect how we envision the actors. Instead of creating their own images of Jay Gatsby, new readers of Fitzgerald’s classic will picture Leonardo DiCaprio.

Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t have anything against film adaptations. I disagree with the oft-voiced maxim, “The book is always better.” It isn’t. The Godfather, Jaws, Goodfellas. All better. I don’t even subscribe to the belief that good books make lousy movies; The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Sweet Hereafter, To Kill a Mockingbird are all excellent movies adapted from excellent books. But I don’t want to be reminded, when I’m reading, that there’s another version out there waiting for me and my money. And I don’t want to be told whom to picture as the characters.

Books deserve care, especially with their covers. That’s our first engagement with the author’s story. Consider this one, for Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River (the book I’m currently reading):

The novel is a coming-of-age story of Margo Crane, a poor teenage girl who embarks on a journey up and down Michigan rivers after her mother abandons her and her father is killed. The prose is gorgeous and the perspective is third person, but the brilliance of the cover is how it subtly positions the reader in Margo’s boat. We see the river and horizon over the prow of her boat, through her eyes. If they ever make a movie out of this book, you can bet that the cover will let the reader do no more than stare into the face of some young actress.

Good covers don’t need to be elaborate, just evocative of what’s inside. Even the cover for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is deeply connected to writer’s words. What better way to communicate the bleakness of what’s waiting for the reader than this:

Which is infinitely better than this:

I mean, I like Viggo Mortensen just fine, but come on.

Oh sure, some wiseass might remark. So I suppose that if you sold your bike book and they made a movie out of it and wanted to print up ten thousand copies with a picture of whatever actor they trick into playing you, you’d shout “No way!” Is that right?

Well, I’ll tell you, Some Wiseass. I’m a man of principle. I’m not someone who simply folds on his beliefs when a little cash is waved in his f—wait, did you say ten thousand copies?