Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The birds and the books

with 11 comments

The Anatomy of Melancholy

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.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

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.

Written by nevalalee

October 9, 2015 at 8:38 am

11 Responses

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  1. I want to make sure you know that I really enjoy your blog. I read it every day, and it always leaves me more informed and feeling inspired. Just out of curiosity, though, is there a reason why you use a ragged right margin in your blog if you dislike seeing it in print? At least on my computer screen, the right margin of the main text area is a bit too close to the vertical bar that divides it from the sidebar on the right, and the ragged right margin somehow emphasizes this for me. Your sans-serif font is clear and easy to read on screen, and I think that’s probably why you selected it.

    Andrea Kenner

    October 9, 2015 at 6:13 pm

  2. That’s a fantastic question. I don’t justify text on this blog because WordPress doesn’t hyphenate words across line breaks, which can result in an even messier look—at least to my eyes—than a ragged right margin. (I also often rewrite the text to make the margins more even.) And the font here happens to be the default typeface for the blog theme I chose, which I selected for other reasons. I’ve occasionally thought about upgrading, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. More generally, I think the rules for readable online text are subtly different from those in printed books.


    October 9, 2015 at 6:23 pm

  3. Thanks for your reply! I knew there had to be a reason, because you have such good reasons for everything you do. You’re very thoughtfulI have a blog too, and it’s really hard to get it to look exactly the way I’d like it to.

    Andrea Kenner

    October 9, 2015 at 7:29 pm

  4. Oops! Typos found their way into my reply and no way to correct them (blushing).

    Andrea Kenner

    October 9, 2015 at 7:30 pm

  5. “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.” — Absolutely. The ‘rules’ or typography are fascinating. One of my best purchases was a copy of _Printing Types_ by Updike, a book on typefaces rather than book design, but written by a master. It cost me $3 at a book fair (2 vols) and changed the way I look at the written word forever ( _The Form of the Book_ by Jan Tschichold is more directly aimed at book design. It is really good but harder to find (Updike is old enough to be free on the web). In both cases, it seems to be that there are rules and unless you are really an expert with great wisdom, chances are you’re better off following them. Of course, the modern epitome is Bringhurst’s book which I know you have quoted from; I would rate these three as ‘must reads’ for people interested in books and typefaces.

    Conventional wisdom is that because serifs are so fine, on anything but a ‘retina’-type display, or at smallish type sizes, san serif is preferable on a screen to avoid ugly aliasing and similar effects. Some serif fonts have been designed for the web ( ) and they tend to have heavier serifs and a greater x-height than fonts destined for paper for just that reason.

    With webpages being viewed on multiple platforms, with resolution and possible line-wrapping out of control of the author, san serif is still considered ‘safer’, though as displays improve this is changing.

    Tests have shown that a preference for serifs appears to be habit and familiarity rather than any intrinsic quality of the font — we once thought that the serifs acted as guides to the eye and so on, but it appears that comprehension, readability and so on are much the same if we compare good fonts with good fonts. of course, there are still words like Ill (ill at the start of a sentence) which perhaps indicate serif has advantages…

    I have bought book because of their look. Or at least I have opened them because of their look and then gone on to buy them. A well-made paperback (I’m thinking the large-format Pimlico paperbacks) can indicate that the material has been treated with respect.


    October 9, 2015 at 9:45 pm

  6. Right now I’m basically spending all my time going through the (many) books at my mom’s house. Most of the books are in bad condition, but I’m trying to salvage as many as I can to donate to books shops and the like. So I basically have to make a split second decision, based on the cover alone, on what to do with each book. I realize this is the sort of thing that book sellers do all day long, and they actually know what they’re doing, but I’m basically flying blind. After I go through a few boxes, I look back and it’s very hard for me to figure out exactly what was going through my head in sorting the books into different piles (those piles include, books to keep, books to try to sell, books to donate, and books to get rid of by any means necessary). So this was a very interesting and timely post.


    October 9, 2015 at 11:43 pm

  7. @Andrea Kenner: Thanks! I appreciate your comments and your presence here.


    October 11, 2015 at 8:26 pm

  8. @Darren: I really need to get my hands on Updike and Tschichold. Thanks for the link to your review—it’s as thoughtful as always.


    October 11, 2015 at 8:27 pm

  9. @Nat: Have you thought about bringing in an outside bookseller? Most of these guys are glad to check out home libraries.


    October 11, 2015 at 8:29 pm

  10. The Updike is available on the web in facsimile (a reflowed epub/mobi would be pointless) as pdf, I think you can try here: .


    October 12, 2015 at 5:20 am

  11. Got it—thanks!


    October 16, 2015 at 7:44 pm

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