Judging a book by its cover

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is nonsense.

Book cover design is a billion-dollar industry. The cover of a book (including the front cover, the back cover, and the dust jacket) contains the title and subtitle of the book, the name of the author(s), their bios, blurbs, recommendations, retail price, i.e., most of the things you need to know in order to decide whether to buy a book. So we can make a decision even if the book is shrink-wrapped (I am looking at you, Kinokuniya).

Same in life. We often make decisions by looking at the surface. Imperfect, but damn efficient.

Let’s take the adage literally. Last week I went to a bookstore in Subang Parade. On the nonfiction shelf, I saw a book by Michael Chabon. I know him as a novelist (with a Fiction Pulitzer under his belt), but this is a non-fiction book.

Once I saw Michael Chabon on the cover, I need not check anything else. I immediately picked it up.

(The book is titled Pops, by the way, and it is about parenthood.)

Why the snap decision? Chabon is perhaps the greatest contemporary novelist that I have ever read. I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in college, which blew my mind, and I felt a bit sad when I got to the end. I have also read his other novels Wonder BoysThe Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and Telegraph Avenue, which, though not as celebrated as Kavalier & Clay, were masterfully written.

So anything by Chabon, I believe I can’t go wrong with.

(It was an ok book. The first chapter is my favorite. It is about his conversation, during a literary party many years ago, with an older writer whom he looked up to. The older writer warned Chabon against getting married and having children, and said that by having one kid, Chabon will miss out on writing one book in his lifetime. Chabon now has four kids and he mused about the hypothetical four books that supposedly never got written. Chabon concluded that he need not pay any attention to these literary stillborns; his 14 books and numerous literary awards attest to his ability to balance his writing career with family life.)

Similarly, I judge films and TV shows on Netflix by their “covers”. I don’t read in-depth reviews before deciding to watch something or not. A cursory glance at the synopsis and the list of actors/directors/showrunners often suffices to find good films and TV shows.

There were misses at times, for sure. The Irishman, starring the big-screen Mafia triumvirate Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro, and Al Pacino, is too much of a slow burn. The Kominsky Method, though featuring two legendary actors Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, didn’t do it for me, and I never went beyond the pilot episode. But most times, looking at the cover is enough.

In social interaction, the first impression is often the most important impression we have of someone. If it is underwhelming, there might not even be a chance for a second impression.

So, judge away. And conversely, put on a good cover if you want to be read.

This is another example of signaling I wrote about in the previous entry.

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