Book Blog – ‘The Clothing Of Books’, By Jhumpa Lahiri

This little book is deceptively power-packed and emotional.

At the onset, this book claims to speak to the very technical view of book jackets and how they frequently impact the commercial fate of the book. Although as you read it, you will find it is a deeply personal reflection of the author.

Lahiri starts by comparing the selection of book jackets to selecting an outfit. She recounts her troubles, during her growing years, in picking clothing that suitably reflects her split identity. As a child of immigrants from India, she felt affiliated to two different cultures – the Indian culture that she was born in and the American culture she had grown up with. The two cultures had two entirely different personas. There were the bright, shiny Indian dresses versus the monochromatic wardrobe of an American student. And yet, none of these two personas could fully depict her Bengali roots and her American life. Sometimes, unable to dress in a way that made her feel truly herself, Lahiri craved the homogeneity and non-controversial school uniform that her cousins in Calcutta had the privilege of wearing to school. She envied how the uniforms gave them, at once, an affiliation to the students of the same school and anonymity as individual students.

While expounding on the very real problem of picking appropriate jackets for her books, she reflects on more personal aspects of the jacket selection process for her books and how, just like outfits, there was rarely a good fit.

As the narrative progresses to her life in Italy and her love for this language, it becomes apparent that she has picked a culture that seems to be most indicative of herself in Italy. She has something there that neither America nor India could give her. She has found her authentic voice in the Italian language and it is no wonder, that her recent book ‘In Other Words’ was first born as ‘In Altre Parole’ was written and published in Italian before it was translated into English to be published in the United States.

In ‘The Clothing Of Books’, Lahiri has once again demonstrated the undeniable mastery of her craft. She has effortlessly broken down any barrier between herself and the words she writes. There is no filter there, each word carries the hue of her personal view and experience. So authentic is her emotional connection to the narrative, you are unwittingly drawn into her view of the world. Every word she picks seems to be a sincere reflection of an emotion or thought of hers.

A memorable part of this book for me is that at one point, Lahiri describes her bookshelf in Italy with books turned to face the viewer. It inspired me to turn some of the books on my bookshelf to face outward too. This way, I have an opportunity to look at the book jacket instead of the spine of the book and reflect for a bit. And I try to listen to what they have to say to me about the books that I have read or am yet to read. And after reading the book, reflect on how much justice the book jacket does to the contents.

For instance, on seeing the cover of ‘The Organized Mind’, (it has been months since I purchased it), I was shocked to see a stack of books.

This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for some time now. I always thought it was about introspection and the organization of one’s thoughts. I can’t imagine organizing my mind by reading a stack of books written by someone else. I enjoy reading stories and ideas of other people but would think that the organizing of my mind would be an exercise of self-reflection and could not be helped, but rather be hindered by reading that stack of books on the cover!

“These are my current inhibitions though”, I pacify myself. “I will wait to see if my initial impressions are somehow overturned after reading the book.” But now I am hesitant to pick this book up at all. I am concerned the book may not be about organizing one’s minds after all.

Hmm.. I see it now, Jhumpa. Picking a book jacket is a perilous endeavor!

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