Books and Covers

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. Which is pretty daft, as the cover is deliberately created and chosen to say something about the book. It’s supposed to encourage the kind of people who might like the book (and a few others besides) to pick it up, buy it, read it. In fact, it’s a fairly intrinsic part of the whole bookishness of the book. But, be that as it may, let’s take the old saw at face value. Let’s assume that we’re all books from the era when parents found it compulsory to instantly re-cover everything with leftover wallpaper, so you actually couldn’t judge the book by its cover – just someone’s questionable taste in wall coverings.

So. Metaphorical books and covers, instructive proverbial usage for the purposes thereof. Such things have been on my mind of late.

The thing is, we do judge books by their covers. Particularly when by “book” you mean “people” and by cover you mean “appearance”. After all, people put a lot of effort into their appearance in order to try to control, to some degree, how they’ll be judged. Even I put quite a lot of effort into not putting very much effort into my appearance. Because that appearance says something about me, my values and so on. Whether what our appearance says to people is what we want it to is an entire other issue – we all have our own translation service for such things, and sometimes it makes Google Translate look positively accurate. One man’s “suave and devil-may-care” is another man’s “oily, arrogant pillock”. My “confident, witty and urbane” could well be your “overbearing, vulgar and boorish”.

There are other, subtler, levels on which this operates. What sparked my recent mental re-visit to these waters was the person who asked me to write about prayer. They did so based on assumptions arising from how I appeared to them. Not my physical appearance, but appearance in the wider sense. Presumably their subconscious ran something like “Was a deacon: check. Leads worship services: check. Leads ‘reflective’ things: check. Looks like a bit of a hippy: check. Let me run these factors through my own kind and lightly artistic temperament. Ching! Excellent, they’ll do fine”. Whereas on receiving the request, my thought process was “Pardon? You want me, potty mouth vulgarian, oft-struggling with all aspects of faith and its trappings, to write what, exactly? Are you completely mad?”.

What that moment of reflection led to was a renewed awareness that it’s not just that most of us present different faces is in different contexts. It’s not just that how we see ourselves and how others see us are not always the same. It was that how others see us is a complicated mixture made up in part of how we look, how we behave in the context they meet us; but it’s also heavily mediated by their own character and predispositions, or their own prejudices  – in both the non-pejorative and more common sense of the word.

And that little thought led me to take a few steps back from my own reading of other people’s “covers”, particularly when they’re people that I normally see in a formal or semi-formal setting. I’ve been tipping a few mental apologies these last few weeks, having readjusted to allow for my own preconceptions and filters.

Seeing someone repeatedly in a particular context – be it work, social, or fulfilling a particular role – there’s a tendency to limit one’s appreciation of them to just that context. Over time, that gets further refined and constrained as little traits become magnified, jokey comments solidify into a perception of stereotypical abd extreme characteristics. Little by little, another human being becomes something between a cipher and a two dimensional cartoon-version of reality. Much easier to either adore or dismiss, to manage or to act as a repository for your own issues, but selling both them and yourself short.

Probably worth remembering, then, that a cover can be a partial, but never complete, indicator of the book. Actually reading a few chapters doesn’t hurt. Regardless, it’s always worth taking a moment to make sure you’re looking at the actual cover, not one you’ve drawn in your own head, from your own issues or for your own ends.

And on a slightly poignant note, how others see you may well point up things you didn’t actually recognise about yourself, if you pause for a moment and look in the mirror through their eyes. For better or worse …