Judging a Book By Its Cover, and Title!

TreeI’ve recently become intrigued with the idea and practice of mindfulness. A couple of my friends and two of my favorite relatives recommended this to me. Of course, I realize that mindfulness practice is most likely included on the full list of Stuff White People Like  along with hummus, Bob Marley and having two last names. Here I am, following along with the white tribe, as usual. Slightly embarrassed by that fact but determined, I set out to find what has been described to me as the definitive book on mindfulness: Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. (Notice the two last names?) When I first heard that title, I scoffed. Really? Do I need to focus on the full catastrophe that is my life right now? Not exactly what I’m after. I’d rather be focusing on the beautiful and positive things in life, finding mindful positive moments amidst the chaos. I wonder if the word catastrophe has a definition that I’m unaware of. so I look it up. Nope. it’s just as I thought: (1) A terrible disaster or accident, especially one that leads to great loss of life; or (2) Total failure: an absolute failure, often in humiliating or embarrassing circumstances. Even the theater definition: (3) Resolution of plot – Concluding part of the action in a drama, especially a classical tragedy, when the plot is resolved, left me cold. My life feels a little like a tragedy right now — that’s why I want to focus on something else! I thought mindfulness was a positive practice. Why does this book have such a terrible title?

Despite my reservations about the title, I search for the book during my usual Friday sojourn to Elliott Bay Books. A bookseller directs me to the correct shelf and hands the book to me with some sort of knowing look before making his way back to the Information Desk. Hmm, if there are less appealing book covers, I haven’t seen one recently. This bookFullCatastropheLiving looks as dry as the owner’s manual for a refrigerator — without the pretty picture of gleaming stainless steel. And it’s heavy. Now, I like long, serious books, books I can get lost in. This book though, along with its title, seems to weigh me down rather than lift me up. Nevertheless, I do what I always do to test out a potential read: I read the first sentence, the first page. In this case, not a gripping line anywhere to be found in the long and dry introduction, only an exposition on how the author is really quite a big deal in the area of mindfulness. Okay. Good. Where does the book start? After paging through the Introduction and many vignettes about various individuals whose practice of mindfulness has changed their lives, I finally get to something that draws me in — about fifty some odd pages in. I close the book and sigh, still holding onto it. I want to want this book, but I’m just not feeling it. I check the price and place it back on the shelf.  I simply cannot justify forking over twenty-five dollars for this book that leaves me so cold.

SmallVictoriesAs my gaze drifts back to other books in this section, I notice a small powder-blue book sitting on the shelf facing outward. Tiny flecks of gold dot the front cover and call to me. The urge to hold this friendly book is strong. So I pick it up and smile: Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Now this is an appealing book! And it’s written by a favorite author, Anne Lamott. I open it and find it’s surprisingly beautiful inside too. The text is blue on creamy white paper, and before any introduction, there printed on an early page is a Billy Collins poem. My smile widens as I read In the Evening, a lovely poem evoking a contemplative mood and a mindful moment. Perfect! I sail to the checkout counter with the promise of this little gem propelling me forward like wind at my back.

I can’t wait to read the Anne Lamott essays but can’t help wondering if this experience proves that I’m just a pawn in some publisher’s marketing plan. After all, I purchased a completely different book from the one I went looking for simply because I was drawn to its cover and title. It’s true. But I could never choose Full Catastrophe Living over Small Victories — I’m not depressed enough! Maybe that proves the genius of the marketing front cover final (2)team anyway. I was simply the wrong demographic for Kabat-Zinn’s book and the right one for Lamott’s. Okay, I’m fine with that. But I think what’s really going on here is that, as an author, I place unusual importance on titles and book covers. I certainly spent many hours fretting over the title and cover of my first mystery novel: Leap of Faith. It’s not a terribly original title I know (just try searching for it) but that title definitely fits the plot. And the title of the sequel, still not completely jelled in my head, has changed three times now. Also, because I was lucky enough to be published by a small local publisher, I had some control over the cover and changed my mind a ridiculous number of times over that too.

The takeaway here is nothing new for writers. Book titles and covers are so important! Having some say about these two things seems crucial. And yet, authors published in the traditional way have little or usually no control over the cover. I’ve heard some pretty funny stories from writer friends about covers that may have ended up looking great but have nothing to do with the novel inside. Titles too can be changed by agents and publishers. So, what to do? It’s a conundrum. But I think the mindful way would be simply to be happy that your book has been published and is making its way in the world. Who knows, someone may pick it up in a bookstore sometime simply for the promise of what’s inside, even if what’s inside isn’t what she was originally looking for. C’est la vie.

And, because I want to be like Anne Lamott, I’ll leave you with a favorite Billy Collins poem about books.

~ Rachel


Go, little book, out of this house and into the world                                                                         carriage made of paper rolling toward town                                                                                       bearing a single passenger                                                                                                                     beyond the reach of this jittery pen                                                                                                       and far from the desk and the nosy gooseneck lamp.

It is time to decamp,                                                                                                                                 put on a jacket and venture outside.                                                                                                     time to be regarded by other eyes,                                                                                                         bound to be held in foreign hands.

So, off you go, infants of the brain,                                                                                                       with a wave and some bits of fatherly advice.

stay out as late as you like,                                                                                                                      don’t bother to call or write,                                                                                                                  and talk to as many strangers as you can.

By Billy Collins, From Aimless Love



About writeinseattle

Two Seattle writers examining the writer's life.
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