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The Best Book Advice I’ve Ever Received from a Librarian

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Abby Hargreaves

Staff Writer

Abby Hargreaves is a New Hampshire native living and working as a Children’s Librarian in Washington, D.C. She fulfills the gamut of the librarian stereotype with a love of cats, coffee, and crocheting (and likes a good run of alliteration). Her MLIS degree enjoys the company of a BA in English from Hollins University, making Abby an advocate of women's universities. Her favorite color is yellow.

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull Cover 2

If this is the cover I’d first seen of this book, I would have run away…

Fifteen years out of elementary school, I can no longer remember the names or faces of the school librarians. I only vaguely remember the setup of the trailer in which most of the instruction and research took place; fewer details survive in my memory about the trailer where the bulk of the collection sat. I don’t recall the shape of the hill beyond the library, and I certainly don’t remember any of the books I checked out as a student. But there is one thing that has sat clearly in my memory: the best book advice I’ve ever received from a librarian.

“Who knows the saying,” the librarian asked, “‘don’t judge a book by its cover’?”

We all raised our hands; one student explained the meaning of the adage.

Refraining from critiquing someone based on superficial information or, indeed, a first impression is good advice. But to take the phrase as actual book advice is to do yourself a disservice.

The school librarian, with fifty-or-so young eyes looking on from the floor (all obediently criss-cross, applesauce), explained that covers—and assessing or judging them—are imperative to selecting books that will interest the reader. For example, she said, “If you pick up a book that has a ghost on the cover, what might you expect to find in that book?”

“A scary story!” one of my classmates volunteered.

She smiled and nodded. “That’s right. Very good. So, you see, book covers are actually very useful and you should judge a book by its cover.”

A cover’s purpose, of course, is to advertise a book’s contents.

I’ve carried this book advice with me throughout my reading life (which is to say, my life). I only pick up books which attract my attention, though I recognize those who design the covers of books have a difficult job. To make a single spine stand out in a sea of them is no easy task. But I’ve learned how to visually weed out books that are unlikely to maintain my interest once I’ve opened them. And, certainly, it’s true that the point of a cover is to provide information about a book’s interior. (Well, that and be great bookstagram fodder—where would we be without To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before?)

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull Cover 1

…Fortunately, this is the one that caught my eye.

Sometimes, this comes back to bite me. On occasion, cover art is just a poor representation of a book. There are likely plenty of books out there that I’m missing out on because of a cover design that doesn’t strike me the way the contents would. There are a couple of editions of my favorite book in the world (War for the Oaks by Emma Bull) I’d never in a million years pick up because of their covers. I lucked out with the one I saw in the bookstore that fateful day. But, to be honest, I don’t need another reason for my TBR to grow, so that cover designs are sometimes subjectively bad and/or uninteresting to me is okay.

On the other hand, there are plenty of great covers out there wrapping less-than-great books. Is the cover of American Gods awe-inducing? Yes. Did I love the book as much as the cover? Absolutely not. (Don’t @ me.) I can’t say how many reading hours I’ve wasted for a decent cover.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Great cover, but the story wasn’t my cup of tea.

But overall, it’s a great strategy and I’d like to thank that school librarian (and apologize that I don’t remember your name or your face) for giving me permission to judge books by their covers. I’ve had a richer reading life for it.

Do you pick up or ignore books based on their covers? Has a librarian ever given you invaluable book advice? Let us know in the comments.