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The Commercial Needs of the Book Jacket

The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri explores the complex relationship between artist, writer, and reader in this extract from her thought-provoking essay The Clothing of Books.

The definition of the word copertina (cover) in my Italian dictionary is quite succinct: “The paper or cardboard wrapper that covers a book, notebook, or magazine.” My own definition, on the other hand, is much more extensive, with other nuances, declensions.

A cover appears only when the book is finished, when it is about to come into the world. It marks the birth of the book and, therefore, the end of my creative endeavor. It confers on the book a mark of independence, a life of its own. It tells me that my work is done. So, while for the publishing house it signals the arrival of the book, for me it is a farewell.

The cover signifies that the text inside is clean, definitive. It is no longer wild, coarse, malleable. From now on the text is fixed, and yet the cover has a metamorphic function as well. It transforms the text into an object, something concrete to publish, distribute, and, in the end, sell.

If the process of writing is a dream, the book cover represents the awakening. 

The news that a new cover is about to arrive elicits ambivalent emotions in me. On the one hand, I am moved because I have successfully brought a book to conclusion. On the other hand, I fret. I know that when the cover makes its appearance the book will be read. It will be criticized, analyzed, forgotten. Even though it exists to protect my words, the arrival of the cover, linking me to the public, makes me feel vulnerable.

The cover makes me aware that the book has already been read. Because in reality, the book jacket is not only the text’s first clothing but also its first interpretation—both visual and for sales promotion. It represents a collective reading by the book designer and various people at the publishing house; it matters how they see the book, what they think of it, what they want from it. I know that before a book is launched, the cover has to be discussed, considered, approved, by many.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London and raised in Rhode Island. Her debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award,The New Yorker Debut of the Year, and an Addison M. Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It was an international bestseller, translated into more than thirty languages. Her first novel, The Namesake, was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles TimesBook Prize finalist, and selected as one of the best books of the year by USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. Her second collection, Unaccustomed Earth, was a New York Times Book Review,Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time, and People Magazine Best Book of the Year, a finalist for the Story Prize, and winner of the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Her most recent book is her second novel,The Lowland (published September 2013). A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and two children. Her books include In Other Words, The Clothing of Books, The Lowland, Only Goodness, and Unaccustomed Earth.