For the umpteenth time, my 1-year-old daughter yanked the books from the shelves and scattered them haphazardly across the living room floor.
This was the bookcase with all the classics. You know, the “used book store” ones that you display as a ruse so that visitors think you’re more cultured and well-read than you actually are. Hemingway. Milton. Twain. Austen. Steinbeck. Sartre. Plath.
I doubt I’m the only one who does it, but yes, I’ve completely outed myself. Though I have, indeed, read about 20 percent of them. I’d say that’s pretty good. Realistically, it’s hard to get through all of them. I never did digest Mrs. Dalloway. My apologies to Virginia Woolf, but the stream of consciousness and alternate modes of narration didn’t do it for me — though quite possibly that was because at the time my stream of consciousness was flowing all over the place as well. I’m surprised I even got a “D” on that paper. The professor must have been extremely merciful that day.
The reason I mention this bookcase full of literature is that it gives the impression that I am well-read. Perhaps being a writer and editor and having worked in the book publishing industry supports this theory. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s a front. Well, at least 80 percent of it is a front. The other 20 percent is legit.
To be sure, I don’t mean to call myself a fraud. I happen to like old books and how they look when displayed in a bookcase, particularly in living rooms. And one day I truly do hope to read them all. My objective here is to focus the spotlight on a phrase with which most of us are familiar:
You can’t judge a book by its cover.
(Or, as in my case, you can’t judge a bookcase full of books by their covers.)
The meaning of this phrase is simplistic — you can’t know the true nature of something or someone based solely on outer appearance. Preconceived notions do neither party any good. The person doing the judging is missing out on seeing the truth beyond the cover, and the one beyond the cover is being judged without evidence.
The cruelest part about judging a book by its cover is leading those you are judging to start judging themselves, only to feel like failures when they won’t or can’t live up to their “cover image.”
This thought occurred to me the other day when I was reading with my daughter (the 6-year-old, not the one throwing books all over the floor). We were reading “Red: A Crayon’s Story” by Michael Hall. To make a long story short (well, the story isn’t really long — it’s mostly pictures), there was a blue crayon clothed in a red wrapper, and all the other crayons expected him to draw things that were red. But the crayon “wasn’t very good at it.” The other crayons kept urging him to try harder to come out red, but “he just couldn’t get the hang of it.” (Never before had I felt this despondent for a crayon.) Finally, a new crayon came to town and helped “red” realize that he actually was blue. And like a toddler on a freshly painted wall, the crayon proceeded to color things that were blue everywhere (jeans, blueberries, and so forth), exclaiming, finally, “I’m blue!” And then all the other crayons were starstruck and thought that he was the coolest. “And he really was!”
That’s the gist of it.
Anyway, my point is that this kids’ book illustrates (get it?) a scenario wherein others judge a crayon by its wrapper, to the extent that he feels like a failure for not living up to the image they’ve conjured.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover” may be a nice learning tool for elementary school students, but all fictional crayons aside, the phrase is not only simplistic. It’s also a bad analogy.
If books are supposed to represent people, and we want to be true to reality, then we would have to extend the metaphor to say that you also can’t judge a book by what’s inside, either. People are more complex than simply words on a page. People continuously change, so you can’t pin them down for long enough to judge them. In contrast, words in a book don’t change.
That’s why when the opportunity allows for it, books can be judged by what’s inside. Agents judge books. The National Book Critics Circle judges books. The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly editors judge books. People judge books, some based on the first few paragraphs alone (part of why I’m only at 20 percent of my bookcase).
The adage falls short because it fails to factor in the simple reality that people are constantly evolving into different versions of themselves. As much as you think you know them, you’re seeing only a snapshot. A photograph. You don’t see the film from beginning to present. You can’t gauge the context of a scene. So don’t judge. And even if you could see the entire reel, still, don’t judge. And even if the only reason you wouldn’t judge is for fear of what might happen were you to be on the receiving end — yes, that is reason enough. It’s not your place to judge.
As we enter into these Ten Days of Repentance, let us remember not to judge our own selves, either. Atone, lament, repent, as you wish. Worship with both fear and reverence. Read through the prayers: “forgive us, pardon us, make atonement possible.” But try to give yourself a break. Leave the judging to God.
The phrase “you can’t judge a book by its cover” teaches a great lesson for children and their crayons. But for adults, it has gone the way of old platitudes. It has become a cliché. Ultimately, I think the phrase needs a facelift. Or a complete overhaul. We need a phrase that doesn’t sound so negative but that essentially makes the same point…only better. A phrase that also leaves room for evolution and acceptance of oneself.
The point of the phrase is that the outer cover does not reflect the inner being. I would propose a more harmonious, positive, and accurate alternative.
I heard an idea last week, when Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck hosted a concert featuring the husband and wife YouTube sensation, Yonina. The performers spoke briefly between songs, and one anecdote seemed particularly meaningful. It was a pleasing replacement for all this talk about books and covers.
Nina told the crowd about her favorite magnet on the refrigerator in her parents’ home. Written on that magnet was a phrase, a sentiment about recognizing the inner being. The words were:
“You don’t have a soul—you are a soul. You have a body.”