In college, I had the chance to read it in a survey of Russian literature with Richard Pevear, renowned scholar and translator of Russian literature, and I blew it. The classroom was dark and musty with enormously high ceilings and a chipped crown molding of fleurs de lys. I took a seat at the front, read the syllabus, and spent the next hour shrinking against my chair as Pevear tossed around phrases like Pre-Soviet Literary Moral Anxiety and Tolstoyan Anarcho-Pacifist Christian Philosophy. At the end of his lecture, I shuffled out with the rest of the class, made a beeline for the Registrar, and dropped Russian lit. I never even opened a text.
If I had, and certainly if that text had been Anna Karenina, I would have taken the class. Instead, I spent the next four years suspiciously eyeballing words like “crime” and “punishment” and “war” and sometimes even (I’m not proud of this) “peace.” I was legitimately scared of Russian literature. I had Russian friends and would have eaten blinis with jam ‘til the serfs came home, but I couldn’t bring myself to read even one text from one of the most renowned bodies of world literature. And then one day, I did the intellectually honorable thing and judged a book by its cover.
I’ve been judging books by their covers since coming across Jamberry as a small child. I was probably three before I was conscious of the merits of this classic children’s book: before this, I’m assuming I left book selection to my parents or babysitters. But Jamberry — lord, with all those colors, the plumpness of the berries, the jolly smile on that bear…what a cover! I loved it. And because I loved it, I made my father read it to me. Again, and again, and again. Oh, that dancing bear with all his silly berry fêtes! I remember thinking, Wow, what a delicate canopy of sophisticated magical realism Bruce Degen has managed to drape across a narrative that is otherwise suffused with the kind of striking — if paradoxical — ebullient melancholy that so often abounds in children’s literature. Or something along those lines. Point is, Jamberry was a damn good book, and my three-year-old self might never have known it if the cover hadn’t been so eye-catching.
The cover-judging continued throughout my youth. There was the Boxcar Children series, with its book jackets of smiling, whitebread orphans; glossy Anne of Green Gables paperbacks tolling the majestic hills of Prince Edward Island; Bridge to Terabithia with its haunting, apocalyptic-looking tree. They were gems, all of them, and I was a happy reader well into my teens, even when the ending of Walk Two Moons (cover: die-cut Kentucky mountains crowned by two glowing orbs) left me sobbing in my darkened kitchen at 11:00 pm on a school night.
I’ll admit there was a time when I thought that things could be different. I began, around the age of 16, to consider myself A Liberal, and suddenly, the idea that “you can’t judge a book by its cover” became a whole lot less laughable. That’s right, I found myself thinking. You can’t! So I started to select my fiction based not on covers, but, rather, by the descriptions on the back.
It was a risky move, judging books by the content of their, well, content, and in the end it was an utter failure. The books with the good covers — I can remember reading The Great Gatsby and A Confederacy of Dunces at this time (both with excellent, albeit graphically different, cover art) — were a hit. But the books with the crappy covers just didn’t sit well. Take, for example, my relationship with J.D. Salinger. I had recently read Catcher in the Rye (great cover, the one with the billowing outline of a horse that looks like it could have been drawn by Alphonse Mucha, or a kindergarten prodigy), so I decided to move on to another work by the same author. I went to my high school library, picked up a copy of Franny and Zooey, and headed home to read.
It was, you can imagine, a disaster. First of all, the cover was terrible: a blank white expanse embellished only by the insulting diagonal rainbow and harsh black font trademarked by mass-market Little Brown paperbacks. And I just couldn’t get into the story. I felt bored, my attention un-tugged; I had expected the first page to exert the same magnetic force as had Catcher in the Rye, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t even make it to Zooey.
I’m not suggesting that Franny and Zooey is a bad work of literature. In fact, what’s most interesting about this anecdote is that I reread Franny and Zooey just a few years later and I actually liked it. The 1994 Penguin edition conforms to Salinger’s minimalist design ideals while still sporting a much more agreeable cover, what with the presence of the color green. Whether my final affection for Franny and Zooey has to do with me being a more mature reader at this later date I’d rather not dwell on, lest it disrupt my thesis that books with bad covers suck. Instead, I’d like to posit that good books with bad covers can deteriorate in quality just by visual association, much in the same way that attractive people with ugly friends never get laid.
But then along came Anna Karenina, the most layable cover I’ve met. I found it while thumbing through the collection of a book vendor in New York’s Washington Square, and ohh, what beauty. A vintage edition Airmont Classic: Anna stands regally in the foreground, her hair a mess of sketchy, coal-colored curls, while Vronsky looks on stormily behind her, his otherwise towering presence complicated by the sad figure of Karenina in the background. I saw that cover and I saw it all — the passion that would unfold beneath those snow-capped Russian roofs, the mortality of Anna’s delicate hand clutching its fur muff. I bought the book, read it in two days, and my relationship with Russian Literature hasn’t been the same since. Anna Karenina is an amazing book.
Tolstoy captures the complicated rift between our visceral and socialized selves like Vermeer captured the light over the rooftops at Delft — that is to say, prodigiously. As only a virtuoso can. And the cover adorning the Airmont Classic vintage edition of his masterpiece is probably the reason.