The birds and the books
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What have you bought based on its cover alone?”
In evolutionary biology, there’s a concept called the good genes hypothesis—closely related to the delightfully named “sexy son hypothesis”—that states that such seemingly useless traits as elaborate plumage in birds can indicate real genetic advantages to potential mates. It’s hard to keep a bright, bulky set of tail feathers intact, and since it makes it harder to flee and increases visibility, it even puts its owner at increased risk of being eaten. A male that is capable of surviving with an inconvenient tail presumably has correspondingly good instincts or stamina, and it’s those qualities, rather than the tail itself, that make him attractive to females. Plumage or other aspects of a bird’s appearance can also be a sign of overall health. Parasites, for instance, can reduce the sheen of ultraviolet feathers in such species as the satin bowerbird, and comb size in roosters is a decent proxy for levels of testosterone, which affects health in other ways. And the size of the comb can be reduced by such issues as intestinal worms. In other words, there appears to be a strong evolutionary rationale on the species level for developing some sort of quickly processed signal, even if it seems otherwise pointless, that allows females to distinguish between prospects at a glance.
You could say much the same about art. It’s impossible to accurately and rapidly judge a book or movie in its entirety, so audiences develop heuristic shortcuts to make decisions about what to consume, and many of these cues are all but unconscious. Sound design, for example, is an exceptionally useful way to distinguish between films, but only in a negative sense. Many excellent movies have made a point of violating the usual standards of conventional cinematography, with grainy film stock, digital video, or shaky camerawork, but few have ever made an aesthetic virtue out of muddy sound. When we see a clip from a movie with awful sound design, we know at once that it’s likely to be amateurish in other important respects. (Of course, this is only really useful when it comes to independent productions: most studio films have advanced to the point where such technical departments as sound and lighting are always of high quality, even if other aspects suffer.) If I were an independent filmmaker, no matter how small my budget, I’d spend whatever it took in order to get an experienced sound team, as well as a good editor, and I’d prioritize it well above the cameras. We’re likely to give a low-budget movie with sloppy cinematography the benefit of the doubt, but we’ll turn off a movie with bad sound within a few seconds.
Similar factors apply to our choices of what books to read. As with movies, such aspects as cover design, typography, and paper quality are most effective as negative indicators: if the publisher clearly hasn’t taken much of an interest in a book’s tactile and visual qualities—either out of indifference or because of a lack of resources—it isn’t likely to have lavished much care on the contents, either. (Whenever I open a novel to see a ragged right margin and a sans-serif font, I close it at once. It may not be fair, but I don’t want to spend hours staring at that kind of page.) The fact that a book is handsomely packaged doesn’t mean that it’s any good, but it at least indicates the publisher’s confidence in the material. Such rules of thumb don’t always work: The Goldfinch is about as gorgeously mounted an example of the bookseller’s art as you’ll find, but I found it underwhelming as a novel. But I don’t think it’s an accident that the books I love are almost always a pleasure to handle as well as to read. This doesn’t mean that they have to be gilt-edged and hand-tooled, and in fact, handsome leather editions of the classics often strike me as in bad taste. But I’ll always have a weakness for a cleanly designed, attractively typeset paperback with a little heft to its pages.
In short, I’ve spent much of my reading life operating under the assumption that a book that shows obvious care in small details of design and presentation will devote a similar degree of attention to its words and ideas, at least on the editor’s side. And I’m not often steered wrong. Looking around my home office, I see countless titles to which I was drawn mostly because of how they struck my eye. It’s likely that I was first attracted to the Burton Club edition of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night because of how nice it looked lined up on the shelves of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and I’ve discovered many books that ended up being hugely important in my life, like The Anatomy of Melancholy, because they stood out in a used bookstore. And it’s fair to say that my own prejudices and tastes have been shaped by a lifetime of browsing in particular kinds of bookshops, in which the most interesting titles often dated from an era before digital typesetting and the widespread use of sans fonts. Someone who browses for books online, as I increasingly do, will develop a different set of heuristics, and if I recently became obsessed with the titles published by the Bollingen Library, it’s because they invariably come close to my ideal of how a book should look. And now that every new book’s contents are nothing but metadata, browsing itself is going out of style. But it never hurts to check out the plumage.