Three titles chosen purely for their covers

We’ve all heard the old adage "never judge a book by its cover." The only time I don’t think you should follow that advice is when it comes to actual books.

On a purely literal level, when we’re talking about judging actual books by their actual covers, let’s face it: It’s impossible not to. If I’m being honest, being drawn to an interesting cover is probably the No. 1 way that I find new books to try; I spend way too much time walking the shelves not to be drawn in by intriguing covers.

So recently, I decided to test myself: I grabbed three books that simply looked interesting and settled down to read them without knowing anything whatsoever about the plot. And to make it extra interesting, I jotted down a guess at the plot — based purely on the cover design.

"Mr. Gwyn " by Alessandro Baricco

What I think it’s about: I think this is about someone inventing a type of lightbulb, or possibly having a great idea. I’m also going to guess that this is literary fiction, mostly because the cover of this book is made of a heavy, leather-like material with gold embossing, so it feels fancy in the same way that literary fiction feels fancy.

What it turned out to actually be about: Well, I was right that it was literary fiction, but boy howdy was I wrong about the plot. This book (which is actually two novellas in one volume) is about a successful author who decides he’s going to quit writing books to become a copyist, a profession that does not exist and that he decides to make up.

I would recommend this book if: You generally like authors published by "McSweeney’s" (Dave Eggers, for example, and other writers of brainy, genre-busting, style-first prose); they published this book, and it is very on-brand for them.

Did I finish this book? Nope! Not for me.

"The History of Great Things" by Elizabeth Crane

What I think it’s about: No help here for the plot, but those are mid-century colors, and that’s a mid-century font, so I’m guessing it has something to do with the 1950s and 1960s. The way the colors overlap the text looks vaguely like highlighting, so maybe it’s supposed to suggest taking notes. Is this a book about education?

What it turned out to actually be about: This book explores the fraught relationship between a mother and daughter over various periods in their lives (including, yes, the 1950s and 1960s) through a series of hypothetical stories they tell one another. I suppose I could claim they’re educating one another about their lives, but not really. A swing and a miss on that part.

I would recommend this book if: You like stories about complicated family relationships (not always my thing), and also if you are okay with second-person perspective (my thing, but a hard pass for some readers).

Did I finish this book? I didn’t finish it this time, but I could see going back to it in the future.

"The Book of Heaven" by Patricia Storace

What I think it’s about: Literal interpretations aren’t going to help me here. The cover shows a multifaceted shape (an uncut stone?) reflecting clouds and sky at various angles, with a few angles showing a black sky scattered with pinpoint stars, all against a light pink background. My best guess is that this book might be about how everyone’s concept of heaven is different, skewed by our various perspectives to reflect where we’re coming from.

What it turned out to actually be about: This one is tough to explain, so bear with me. It’s sort of a feminist retelling of various Old Testament stories, but it also has a through-line of Eve telling readers about the existence of multiple heavens connected by a river of stars, which she discovers when she’s fleeing an attack from Orion in the sky. It’s not a religious book, though; you wouldn’t find this in the inspirational section. So I was technically wrong about the plot, but also kind of right.

I would recommend this book if: You like feminist reclamations of traditionally male texts and respond well to lyric writing; Storace is a poet, and her language is beautifully dense.

Did I finish this book? I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m going to keep reading. It’s not a “stay up all night” kind of book, I think — more of a “sit with this for a while” kind of book — so I’m taking it slow.

All in all, I’d say that was a successful experiment. I didn’t like everything I read, but I didn’t regret giving them a try. What about you? What’s the best book you ever picked up just because of the cover?

— Meredith Wiggins is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.


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