I’m thinking today about packaging. We judge books by their covers, don’t we? People as books, houses as books, people as houses, for that matter. I’m a voyeur of your abode, I’ll warn you. Walking past houses at night, windows lit up with tungsten coziness, I love to peer inside and imagine the lives being led behind those panes of glass. We look at those houses as indicators of status, too. As if the people inside are wearing bricks and mortar, the largest face they put to the world.
But I digress. (Thoughts wander worse than children sometimes, and while there are leashes for children, frown as you may, I’ve yet to find a string to tie my thoughts to).
Yesterday, I did a book signing at the Buffalo History Museum, as part of its annual local author’s book signing and fair. It was a wonderful afternoon, sitting at a table with 60+ other Buffalo authors with our books, our children, around us. My table was raucous with the nieces and nephews of the author seated next to me, eating candy from our little bowl, strewing free popcorn around, emptying water bottles and peering at the books like foreign creatures. Maybe they are. The author on the other side of me had a booming voice, even with his professed laryngitis, an infectious voice that made people want to listen to his stories. I did, and do. He’s a wonderful writer, editor and teacher. They all are, and I was tickled to be in their company. Both complimented me on my book cover (for which I can take no credit; thanks go to Black Rose Writing’s excellent production team for that).
“Buffalo Steel. It pops. It hits you right where it counts,” she said, gesturing to a poster I’d had printed with the same image. “I love that. Next year, I’m going to do a poster like yours. It grabs people’s attention.”
And I think about how we buy books by their covers. I do, although I’m often ashamed to admit it. I’m a magpie, collecting beauty. Show me something that screams, that sparkles, that entices. I’m drawn to glamour and intrigue, on the face as much as the pages. So goes for people, too. Why else do we dress up our bodies, paint our faces to meet the world? We’re all actors onstage, most of the day. Because others judge us by our covers, too. We wear them like armor. Writer. Sister. Girlfriend. Reporter. Beauty. Redhead. Mother. Do they protect us? Enfold us? Give us somewhere to belong?
Imagine if each of us had a string of titles, hovering above our heads. We could pick each other’s roles out immediately, that way. But can’t we? I think we’re all appraising everything, all the time. Think about your interactions with the people you see, on the street. Tell me you don’t immediately place those people, or try to. Tell me you don’t judge books by their covers, and I’ll tell you you’re wandering blind. A woman wearing stilettos and a suit must be an executive, a power player. That other one with too much eyeliner (who decided that, anyway? I’d like a word) is someone with questionable motives, not to be trusted, although we play with her, in turns. And I think about how we define others, how we define ourselves. How closely we cling to careers, to family positions, the ways society has told us we must be placed, because that’s how others will know us. And oh, how we all love to be known.
I updated my LinkedIn profile today. I’m always daunted by the prompts. Title. Project. Classes. Title. Qualifications. Dates here, job there, photo up that way. And I think about the cover these social media profiles present to the world. As an author, I wonder what my book will say for me, too.
Writers: do we think about this? I picture us all running through a rainstorm-like cocktail party, our books over our faces, protecting our carefully-constructed personas. But do we want these texts to speak for us? This is a question I’ve posed to myself, throughout my career. As a journalist, my stories are like megaphones, giving voice to their subjects. Quotes like safety nets or stages, my words around them like gel lights. I’m the man behind the curtain, pulling the levers that reveal what I’ve discovered. Not so, with fiction. With personal essay. With anything else. Writing is revelatory. In a sense, I think we’re all the characters we construct. Readers place us there, to an extent, and see us through the lenses we’ve put to their eyes and whispered, “Look. This is the world I’ve made for you. And I’ve got something to show you.”
It’s a careful dance, the relationship between writer and character. That’s a cover, too. We put these people, these cardboard worlds, in front of our own faces and say “This is what I want you to see, through me.” We are conduits, and as conduits, we let readers more deeply inside us than ever. Our books, maybe, are less shields than microscopes through which we let readers judge us not by our facades, but our very cells.
And I’m grateful for that privilege, readers. For the fraught ability to send those pages into the ether, on which are written such intimate worlds. We must be delicate with our packaging, to draw readers into the places they want to explore, rather than entrap them in our own self-indulgent drivel. Packaging, in a sense, is everything. In our lives, in our selves. The way we see our cellophane crinkle, the way it rainbows under certain lights, makes us glisten with potential. The same goes for a book. In a certain sense, I think, they glisten with possibility. With the rare opportunity to step inside another self and see what it feels like under their skin.