The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri
The cover is superficial, negligible, irrelevant with respect to the book. The cover is an essential, vital component of the book. One must accept the fact that both these sentences are true.
There’s a word that comes to mind for me when I think about this, my first 5-star (and first backlist) read of 2019: serendipity.
It’s been 13 years since the last time I read Jhumpa Lahiri. I was a freshman in college and taking a short story course with a teacher who changed my life, Candice Stover (her poetry collection Poems from the Pond is hard to find but you should try). She taught me how to read closely, like *really* closely, and thereby dig into the layers of every sentence of a story as if it were (to borrow a metaphor from farm life) rich soil, and discover all the magical biome of symbiotic relationships between fungi, bacteria, and roots. Except with words.
Ok that might have been a stretch of a metaphor, and I’ve gotten off track. The point is, we read Unaccustomed Earth, a short story collection by Jhumpa Lahiri, for that class. I adored it almost as much as I adored Candice, but for some reason I never picked up another Jhumpa Lahiri book. Until a few days ago.
I didn’t so much pick this up as borrow the audiobook from the library. Of course I’d seen it around in various bookstores, in which it’s no secret I like to hang out. But for some reason I wasn’t compelled to read it, despite being its exact target audience. I might ask Lahiri if she thinks this could be because of the cover, which I do like (and wonder if she does) but perhaps didn’t find particularly grab-y?
Regardless, I’m grateful to the Reading Women Challenge this year because one of the prompts is to read a book by Jhumpa Lahiri. Thanks to my handy dandy Chrome library plugin which shows me if a book I’m looking at somewhere on the internet (usually Goodreads) is available, I saw the audiobook of The Clothing of Books was, and read by the author (which is a big preference for me in audio).
The Clothing of Books is very short. The audiobooks comes in at just 54 minutes. But it delighted me from beginning to end. I listened to it twice.
The right cover is like a beautiful coat, elegant and warm, wrapping my words as they travel through the world, on their way to keep an appointment with my readers.
This is a meditation on books as objects. It’s an exploration of what these collections of words mean when they’re naked and when they’re dressed up. Covers and dust jackets are compared to actual clothing, and the metaphor flows into the idea of culture and what books, like people, wear, and in which places. It’s a love letter to libraries and to language, to aesthetics and art. It’s a history lesson and a looking glass into the choices one author makes — and is unable to make — about the books she writes, the books she owns, and the ways in which she has engaged with both over time.
Books, as Lahiri muses on them, are bodies; they are living things. They “…accumulate our marks… wear our experiences of them on their covers and bindings like wrinkles on skin.” I mean!!! Yes.
This book also contains my first exposure to the story of the covers that artist Vanessa Bell designed for the early editions of 38 of her sister Virginia Woolf’s books. I didn’t even know that Hogarth Press was founded by Virginia and her husband Leonard. (I know, for someone who loves Virginia Woolf there’s a lot I don’t know — but now I know more!) I promptly googled this and found this amazing article from Emily Temple at LitHub about the covers on different editions of Virginia’s books through time.
In the afterword Lahiri writes that The Clothing of Books was originally published as a bilingual chapbook in Italy, since she wrote it in Italian and her husband translated it into English. This just makes the whole thing more endearing. I already have In Other Words queued up in my Libby feed. (Thanks Seattle Public Library!)
I am definitely inclined to like this book, but I think most people who have ever enjoyed reading anything will also like it. I highly recommend it if you haven’t picked it up already!
Art is nothing other than the freedom to express oneself in any language, in whatever manner, dressed any which way.