The Daily Heller: Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

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Rather than order books from Amazon, I prefer to patronize the few bookstores left in New York City. So, when I am hunting for something to read, the jacket or cover design is more important than ever. I'm attracted to the image, title and author, but I make a point of reading the "back-panel copy" summarizing a book's content in the style of an elevator pitch. The critical mass of these elements usually must be in sync in order to ensure my purchase.

However, this system is not always foolproof. Last week I saw a paperback version of Michel Houellebecq's novel Serotonin. I'd pleasurably read his last novel, Submission, on the advice of a friend. This time I was seduced by the detail of Henri-Pierre Danloux's 1782 painting "Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Grey Mantle" as the casually hand-scrawled title grabbed my good eye among the display stacks of covers that all pretty much looked the same. Kudos to the excellent designer, Rodrigo Corral.

Halfway to the register I scanned the back-panel copy: "… Serotonin is a caustic, frightening, hilarious, raunchy, offensive and politically incorrect novel about the decline of Europe, Western civilization and humanity in general." In other words, a real downer.

But the cover and title still held my purse strings. Other than the 18th-century artwork, the cover says despair in no uncertain terms. In fact, while depressing myself plowing through the suffocation of its protagonist through a mixture of commercialism, hedonism and numbness from the drug in the title, the only aspect of the book that relieved my own bouts with Camus-like existential pain was looking at the cover from time time.