Beginning when we are small and impressionable, we’re told to “never judge a book by its cover.”
Which book? What cover?
The saying implies that beneath the cover lies something worth the while. You shouldn’t judge the book by its appearance because there may be something beyond the simple surface.
But what if there isn’t?
How many flashy-looking, hip books have you opened only to find something not even worth reading? Experience has shown me that many unassuming books yield up fantastic contents (pretty much all philosophy books are this way). Settling for aesthetic simplicity and letting what’s inside — the substance, not the surface — speak for itself is ideal.
A balance needs to be struck between the impression the cover attempts to convey and the aspirations of the writing itself. While a cover which downplays its insides its forgivable, harsh judgment should await any book whose cover oversells what is found interior.
But frequently a book is properly represented by its cover — and what is inside as well as out is simply rotten.
I’m thinking here of romance novels, trashy sci-fi, ghost-written celebrity “autobiographies,” and, most of all, certain books by less-than-credible commentators offering up political screeds and “Tea Party” protestations as a way to capitalize on the fears and worries of a chronically depressed and underinformed American citizenry.
When you’re looking at a book by Sean Hannity or Sarah Palin, there is an expectation of what is inside, based upon empirical experience of them and others like them, that mirrors the actual contents, and it is by looking at the cover that we are granted this insight. The cover tells us all that we need to know, and all that we will ever need to know.
Even if the author is slightly less known than ham Hannity or the “rogue” (but brain-cripplingly conventional) Palin, a brief glance at the cover can sufficiently gleam the book’s entire identity from the keywords and phrases used on it and the look as well as contents of the entire package.
“Package” is really the right word to use here — because the identity of the book and its contents as well as the author is packaged (pre-packaged) into the book itself. It is presented as a standalone unit of identity, instantly recognizable to nearly anyone.
To get back to the original question, what are we to do with these books and their pre-packaged identities? Are we to not judge them, though their contents as well as their covers are deficient?
In this superficial and insubstantial world, in which people are encouraged to take everything they see and read with a grain of salt and a basic stance of skepticism, what is a person to do among all these false, mass-produced faces?
If it is assumed that the commercials and the talk shows and the memoirs are filled with artifice and half-truths, if advertising’s role is to present the gleaming veneer of consumerism to us, and that purpose is openly acknowledged, is it not possible that people come gilded, also? That they may come manufactured, rubber-stamped?
Sadly, with some people, it is pretty clear that there is nothing beneath the gilded surface.
They, like the books and the TV personalities, come “pre-fab”: from a mold.
What does it mean for a person to be from “a mold”? I’ll give an example.
I, like many of my generation, sometimes smoke pot. While what I do is illegal (for now), with the exception of some states which reserve more draconian consequences for marijuana usage, getting caught with small amounts of the stuff is no more against the law than speeding, and, despite the bad rap it gets by some, I’d equate recreational usage of it with having a glass of wine at dinner or grabbing a beer or two with a friend on the weekend.
But, I digress; so, I smoke pot, and it is one of many activities which I engage in, but do I let it define who I am?
No, of course not. But there are some for whom it does.
I’m sure you’ve seen them: pot-leaf paraphernalia adorning their walls, emblazoned across every personal item they own. Maybe a few Bob Marley t-shirts thrown in. Not all pot-smokers are like this, of course, but there are some. It may even be a minority of them, but they’re still there and everyone who spends any time smoking the stuff eventually encounters someone like this.
It quickly becomes painfully clear that these people are little more than caricatures. They’re, to borrow a phrase from Herbert Marcuse, of a sort “one-dimensional.”
They have cookie-cutter personalities recognizable at a glance, like the pre-packaged identities of certain books and their authors.
While it may be thought that the perceived fault here among them is not in presenting an identity, but in their choice of identity — one that is not currently “cool,” not trendy — truly, the same thing applies to those who choose “cooler” fashion statements or adopt certain “lifestyles” onto which they latch.
Skinny jeans, anyone? Mustaches and ironically crappy neon sunglasses? (The hipster, in all its varied iterations, will go the way of the metrosexual. Have no doubt.) Now, I’m not in principle against any of these things, but when you see someone sporting them (as well as the multitude of other silly tell-tale superficialities certain young people seem susceptible to), it’s indisputable that they are trying, like the overboard pot enthusiast, to broadcast (in the same way that advertisements do) a certain type of persona. One which is false, mass-produced, and one-dimensional.
After all, no one wakes up in the morning to suddenly discover they have a closet full of skinny jeans, Converse, and comic plastic sunglasses, do they? (Though a mustache is one thing they may wake up surprised to have.) There’s a base level of effort which is required.
The “look” has to be cultivated, at least to some degree, because it is not something which happens naturally, and it is not something which you find commonplace among any of the other generations (like, for example, wearing jeans in general is). But the “look” itself also has a strangely uncanny similarity to others of its ilk; after a very short while, they all start to blend together. This is its mass-produced aspect.
As I said, it’s an attempt at broadcasting a persona, a certain identity which the person favors over others. Now, of course we all in some fashion broadcast ourselves to others; it is simply the by-product of being out and about in the world and being seen.
But it is this deliberate attempt to both a) adopt a certain look or persona and then b) broadcast it in to the broader world that I take issue with. Why try to do such a thing? To try to do something implies that it does not come naturally. Unnatural action? The concept is completely foreign to me. But some people clearly have no problem with doing such a thing – essentially alienating themselves and attempting to present themselves as something which, deep down, they are not.
Now, I can’t really blame these people for their choices; in this ADD, exponentially-populating world, there is tremendous pressure, both internal and external, to stand out. The alternative, put simply, is anonymity, at least in some form. It is this fear of anonymity which drives them to one-dimensionality; if someone cannot at a glance tell what “kind” of person I am, their thinking goes, it is no better than not being seen at all.
But they sacrifice substance for the fleeting pleasures of the exterior presentation, and I think they are ultimately worse off for it.
I’ve been blessed with some unique people in my life. No cookie-cutters types, they. Not ones to attach themselves to, nor even to concern themselves with, trends, fashions, fads, and the like; no psychological designs to broadcast themselves outward, and no desire to go out of their way, or take time out of their day, to attract attention. Nor any to try to show people, “I am this way, and I am this type of person.”
When I think of them, I don’t think of how they dress, or what kind of posters they have on their walls, or what kitschy items they choose to fill their rooms with; I think of them, and how they are: their substance.
Why? Because they choose, like the authors of good books, to eschew the superficial, to not give two damns about their “look,” and rely instead on the only source of true power and identity that exists in today’s world: the ineffable personality that resides inside all of us — beyond the simple surface, in the depths, the natural lines and contradictions of the interior of the human spirit.
And why should such a good book fear being judged?