On judging a book by its cover

ImageSo, here it is, the front cover of my book Am I Beautiful? 

What do you think?

Do you like? Does it draw you in and make you look forward to reading it? Do you dismiss it as too pink, too girly? Were you wowed by its font? Did you make assumptions about me, the author?

It’s ironic that in a book that tackles society’s obsession with appearance, the publisher and I have agonised over the front cover. Because there’s no pretending about it: people do judge a book by its cover. Book buyers browsing book stores make up their minds within a few seconds about whether or not they want to buy a book. So your front cover – the window to the rest of the book – is the place you entice the reader, but also give some clues as to what lies inside.

We do the same thing with human beings.

We make snap judgments about people’s characteristics, their background, their capabilities, their class and their intelligence based on a few seconds of scanning their faces, their mannerisms, what they’re wearing.

According to Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, our judgments about people’s physical appearances can even determine who gets the job and who wins in presidential elections. He writes that CEOs and US presidents are on average a lot taller than the general population, for example, with taller people giving off an air of capability.

“Most of us, in ways that we are not entirely aware of, automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature. We have a sense, in our minds, of what a leader is supposed to look like, and that stereotype is so powerful that when someone fits it, we simply become blind to other considerations.”

There’s a famous leadership story in the example of David and Saul found in 1 Samuel. I expect King Saul was … fit. Like an Eric Bana or a Henry Cavill (the new Superman) towering above his counterparts like some kind of superhero. He looked the part. We’re told he stood head and shoulders above the rest. But we’re also told that that whole judging a book by its cover thing is not really how God plays things.

But the Lord said to Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Over the past few months, I’ve enlisted friends and family members to give me their opinions on the various different designs and iterations. And what I’ve found is that getting every person’s opinion on a good book cover is tiresome. Because everyone has a totally different opinion on what constitutes a beautiful book cover. Because beauty is totally subjective. One person’s bestseller is another person’s bargain bin. And all this reminds me once again that beauty-with-a-small-b cannot be confined within some narrow definition constructed by a society intent only on making us feel inadequate and making money out of us; the one that requires each of us to conform and squeeze into it.

Looking for the intrinsic value and beauty in each human being is far from easy. As visual beings our tendency is to judge books by their covers. But let’s be aware that’s what we’re doing – and maybe some day the covers won’t matter anymore.