Judging a Book by the Cover, Part 1

by teresalaynebennett

photo of hands holding a book on someone's lap

What a novel idea: checking INSIDE the book.

You’ve heard this plenty of times, starting with your mother, no doubt. It’s an over-used metaphor, of course, for not forming first impressions of others – or anything – simply on looks.

I’m coming clean right up front. I form first impressions based on how a person, a situation, or a thing looks. There. I said it. I rationalize my behavior, as most of us do, by claiming it’s the only information I have available in today’s nano-second world.

Truthfully? Rationalizations aside? I do it because I’m lazy. Usually, when I don’t get beyond looks, it’s because I don’t want to, or I tell myself I don’t have time. Whether I want to admit it or not, whether I like the concept or not, whether I’m justified in doing it or not, I judge a book by looking at the cover. So do you, BTW.

Have you noticed some books with spectacularly designed jackets or covers that you couldn’t wait to read turned out to be poorly written or just plain trashy? And have you noticed that sometimes books you almost passed up because of their shabby, ho-hum book jackets or covers proved so riveting you could scarcely put them down?

I’m talking hold-in-your-hand, hard-copy books here. But the analogy to people comes through loud and clear, doesn’t it? It’s one of life’s most annoying conundrums: people – as well as things and events – are seldom what they appear to be. Or maybe they are. Who knows? Aargh! Drives me crazy.

The Pay-attention Points

The sooner we take a little more time and make a little more effort to get beyond superficial first impressions, the better. But how? How do you think? By paying attention, of course. Pay attention to all the:

  • obvious and the not-so-obvious clues lying around in plain sight, just waiting for you to notice them.
  • details people tell you – even the seemingly unimportant ones – and the details you can sniff out that they don’t tell you.
  • subtle body language that can belie a person’s words – or back them up.
  • ever-so-slight voice inflections that can dramatically change the dictionary definition of words.

at First Impressions

Do you know someone who’s considered an expert in his field? I do. Dozens. You know what’s really interesting about them? Sometimes they can’t tell you why or how they know what they immediately know about someone or something. They just know.

Now, how does that work? Well, Malcolm Gladwell’s proposal, in Blink, makes sense to me. Here’s my simple paraphrase of the explanation he gives with this story, “The Statue That Didn’t Look Right” in Blink. After absorbing tons of details for a very long time, experts in their field have such a body of knowledge in their heads, they can’t possibly search through it all consciously. Like Data on Star Trek, they search their databanks in nano-seconds (Gladwell calls it “thin-slicing”) and instantly and intuitively know when the “cover” doesn’t reflect what’s in the “book.”

Experts have so much information crammed into their heads, they understandably have a hard time pulling out and naming the exact details that brought them to their conclusion. Though they can’t give you an immediate list of reasons for their brisk assessment, inability to do so doesn’t change the accuracy of their assessment. They just know.

You and I can become experts, too, by paying attention to the list above so that we can make quick, intuitive, accurate judgments. Take a little more time. Make a little more effort. Pay a little more attention to the people, events, and things all around you to see if their innards match their out-ards*. Practice. Practice. Practice.

Next up, Part 2 of this judging-a-book-by-the-cover topic. It’s the part where I have to deal with the unpleasant reality that I get quite miffed when other people judge my book by my cover. How unfair!

*Yes, I made up out-ards. I’m a writer, licensed to do such things. I wouldn’t advise trying this at home.

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” – Jesus in John 7:24, NIV Bible

Maybe the book-cover thing is an old problem?