Saturday, August 15, 2009

Let's not read books by their covers

I love going into a bookshop to find a new book. The very smell of the books fills me with excited anticipation. However, the experience has been marred recently by the evolution of what I can only call 'me too' books.

In Waterstones or your local shop you are greeted by books that are signposted with flashing lights as being in the same genre. So you have your ersatz 'Da Vinci Code' books, for instance. I found 'The Da Vinci Code' one of the worst books I have ever read, and I'm not ready to repeat the experience , yet for those who enjoyed it there are a whole range of books on the same lines. They all have vaguely similar titles such as 'The Shakespeare Prophecy', 'The Michaelangelo Conundrum' or 'The Botticelli Files' so that you know exactly what you are getting. Just in case the title doesn't tell you, you are alerted to the book being in the Da Vinci Code group by the cover, usually some sort of faux medieval plan in a washy coloured print.

If 'Da Vinci Code' even lite-er isn't the bag you're into, you can find plenty more in the genres section. For instance the group of women who meet regularly to knit, sew quilts, read books category. You can spot these by names such as 'The Ladies' Club', 'The Herman Melville Club' or 'The Knitting Circle'. The groups are usually made up of one woman with terminal cancer, a lesbian, one woman with marriage difficulties and sometimes a token man who may or may not be gay. They all sit down talking about books, knitting, quilts etc, all of which provide metaphors for the situations each woman (and the man) find themselves in.

If the 'ladies who meet' genre doesn't provide enough tragedy there is always the 'tragic childhood' section. With titles such as 'Don't hurt me Mummy' and 'A Liverpool Punchbag', these can be identified by sepia tinted cover photos of wan and troubled looking children dressed in rags. Springing from the loins of 'Angela's Ashes', these books document the rise from terrible poverty and abuse of the protagonist.

Finally there's the chick lit section. These are usually brightly coloured and feature a cartoonish picture of a woman in high heels, with our without baby. These are tales of women in fashionable clothes trying to have it all. They struggle to be sexy and successful in their amazing advertising job while bringing up their beautiful and precocious children Cosmo and Thea and cooking with sun-dried tomatoes.

It's always a relief to find the Penguin Classics, wth their black spines and donnish cover notes they are utterly enigmatic, like gifts waiting to be opened. They may turn out to be gifts you don't particularly like but at least you have the opportunity to make up your own mind.

I'm just a bit fed up with being herded into the supermarket model of book buying where some marketing executive decides what sort of person you are and what sort of book you would like. For me this is in absolute opposition to what reading should be about - the opportunity to enter worlds you may never ordinarily come across, to challenge your ideas and opinions. It's great that more people are reading than ever but it's also patronising and limiting to implicitly say to people that this or that type of book is for them. No doubt it sells a lot of books but there's a lot to be said for not being able to read a book by its cover.

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