On the Judgement of a Book by its Cover

I selected Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road from a 3-for-2 pile because of its wonderful cover (see the bottom of this article). That was not enough to secure my purchase, however. I got the cue to do that from a random paragraph. It’s the first paragraph to the fifth chapter:

On the Observance of the Fourth Commandment Among Horse Thieves

With nightfall, a wind blew in over the sea, from the lands beyond the Khazar Sea and beyond the vast steppe of the north, from kingdoms of forest and snow that Amram understood to be the habitations of witches and snow djinn and warrior women who rose on the backs of bears and of giant deer. In the wind was a promise only of ice, storm and advancing darkness, and Amram knelt on the northern slope of a strange mountain, far home home, drew his woolen cloak more tightly around his shoulders and knew in his heart that he would end his days in some winter kingdom, among wintry men.

I’ve always been the kind of reader (and, I hope, writer) who cares about style. We can debate whether Chabon has style or not, but, for me, this is evidence that Chabon is working hard on this critical plane. Style isn’t surface. Style is substance.

I’m reading Clive JamesCultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time, a wonderful book. In the section on F. Scott Fitzgerald, he discusses the provenance of style: its cadence, tone, timbre, volume. The face of the work. To what extent is the style of a writer the product of the styles she has been exposed to as a reader? Is it some form of average? Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter, in which he tries to explain how style is formed, only deepen the mystery.

For my part, I worry about the pedestal upon which I’ve placed Hemingway. He seems just flat out better than everyone else and I can’t help but try to imitate him. After all, if you’re learning something, you should find the best teacher and try to do what you think they’re telling you to do.

I’m reading yet a third book. It’s a collection of quotes from Hemingway about writingProps to Gareth L Powell for letting me know about it via this blog post, which includes several more volumes of interest to the writer.. Many of the quotes are drawn from correspondence. Those sent to Fitzgerald mix exasperation, admiration and rage. Where did Fitzgerald get his style, and why did it desert him?

Chabon is an extraordinarily talented writer. I judged this book on its wonderful cover, both the green-and-gold cloth with its picture of the two travellers at the shore of the Caspian, and the music in the prose. There has to be music.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

4 thoughts on “On the Judgement of a Book by its Cover”

  1. It’s a great cover, but my immediate instinct (if I hadn’t recognised Chabon’s name) would be to think that it was a spoof of some sort: think Ripping Yarns, or the Dangerous Book for Boys.

  2. You’re right, Tim. I thought it was a spoof too, at first, and might be amusing on that level. But the cover is lovely and tactile.

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