The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri
“How do you clothe a book?” is the how this small, but powerful volume begins. For a writer whose stories are as personal and complex as Jhumpa Lahiri’s, a cover’s design presents a different set of questions. The Clothing of Books began as an essay, translated from Italian from a presentation at Cenaolo di Santa Croce, held in 2015, and the resulting book is small enough to slip into a pocket. It is an intimate,writer’s memoir in which Lahiri examines the nature of the many covers of the many editions of her books. In her trademark careful prose, she mines the relationship of text to image, the impression that image makes (often a defining one), and the sometimes jarring effect of seeing one’s work translated to visual terms by a book designer.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was heralded for its quiet, affecting portrayals of Bengali Americans, and received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. This extraordinary debut was followed by three other works of fiction: Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake, and The Lowland, and a work of nonfiction, In Other Words, first published in Italian in 2015 as In altre parole, a memoir of her experience learning Italian, as a reader, a writer, and a translator.
Born in London to Bengali parents, Lahiri grew up in the US, but has always thought of herself as living between both the world of her parents and their adopted homeland. In 2012, she relocated with her family to Rome (she returned in 2015 to join the Creative Writing faculty at Princeton University), which added another layer of complexity, one she has said was at first bewildering, but that ultimately provided, in language, an opportunity for both reinvention and freedom on the page.
So much of Lahiri’s viewpoint is based on this layered, and often conflicting, identity, including her impression of the many book covers that have graced her books:
Upon close inspection, my covers tend perfectly to mirror my own double identity, bifurcated, disputed. As a result they are often projections, conjectures.
In the translation of text to image, the concept of book cover can also be misinterpreted: “Once, after I complained that the cover of a book in which the protagonist was born and raised in the United States seemed too ‘exotic,’ that a less ‘oriental’ approach was better suited, the publisher removed the image of an enchanting Indian building and replaced it with an American flag. From one stereotype, that is, to another.”
At just over seventy pages, The Clothing of Books is a swift read, but the writer goes deeply into her subject, and as the title suggests, touches on the literal idea of clothing, and how it relates to books, and one’s idiosyncratic visual esthetic. From Lahiri’s childhood observing the prim school uniforms of her cousins, to her love of the artist Edward Gorey, and the glimpses she provides into the backstory behind her books’ covers, The Clothing of Books is hugely satisfying for both readers and writers. In one lovely anecdote, Lahiri confesses to having bought many a book for its cover alone. “The cover,” she writes, “has an independent identity. It has a presence, a power of its own.” It’s an important reminder that the cover is the first of a book we see, after all, and its imagery speaks to us, using the powerful language of the visual, to suggest the story within.
“What drew me to my craft,” Lahiri has said, “was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page, as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life.” The duality that has defined her life and work is mined here in the same artful way.
Read an interview with Jhumpa Lahiri, on her approach to translation and her love of the Italian language, in the Paris Review.
— Lauren Alwan