Guest Journal / Journal / Visual Culture

Let Me Judge Books by Their Cover

Gareth Evans & Mai Kataoka.

Let Me Judge Books by Their CoverOn Japanese trains, one can see a distinctive element of Japanese book culture. When I lived in London, where commuters often devote time to reading novels or newspapers, I used to peep at the books people were reading. And, from doing so, I would add new titles to my reading list.

The Japanese also kill time on trains by reading pocket-sized books (Bunko-bon). However, in Japan it is hard to tell what books people are reading as they tend to have them covered, on purchase, at bookstores. These covers, offered at checkout, are typically paper and will be branded with the logo of the bookstore. In recent years, covers have also become a space for Japan Tobacco Inc. to house their ‘responsible smoking’ advertisements.

Let Me Judge Books by Their CoverLet Me Judge Books By Their CoverWhy, in Japan, do people prefer to keep their books covered? Book covers do not simply play the role of protecting books from dirt and the sun. Rather, Japanese want their books to be covered in order to prevent other people seeing what books they are reading. In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, anthropologist, Ruth Benedict talked of Japan’s ‘shame culture’ – a sense of shame and anxiety attached to exposing a part of your identity. This is strongly present in Japan’s book culture. The driving force behind this is the reluctance to present one’s knowledge in front of people. A good example to demonstrate this would be that university students tend to avoid reading English paperbacks on the train because they do not want to be perceived to be showing off their knowledge.

Getting to know what people are reading and imagining people’s personalities are some of the ways to make the train journey more enjoyable. This morning again, I looked at a book wrapped in blank paper in the hands of the man sitting in front of me, and wondered what book he was reading. GE

As a London resident, temporarily decamped to Tokyo, I wholly understand this frustration. And I’d argue that things aren’t rosy back in England on the book-cover front either. In London a different beast has been de-facing commuter readers over the past couple of years. A beast that compounds the situation in Japan: Digital Readers. Book, magazine and newspaper covers are one important way we explore our company in train carriages. As more and more people move their train-time reading to smartphones, tablets and e-readers, it not only becomes less interesting to survey the carriage, there is less stimulus material for constructing fellow commuters’ identities.

Let Me Judge Books By Their CoverFor sure, you can take a lot from selvedge denim, a Brady satchel and an iPad 3. Or the Chancery Lane trio: two-piece suit, Asics running shoes, Amazon Kindle. But reading material is an exciting strand of who we are and one that can throw smug identity-constructors, like me, off the mark. Imagine the Media Planner pulling The Handmaid’s Tale out of his canvas and leather number. Or the solicitor with trainers immersed in ‘Wabi Sabi: for artists, designers, poets and philosophers’. In London, a city of marvelous mixture and variation, opportunities for these moments of pleasant surprise are waning.

This, in turn, has an effect on branding. Except for the tired discussion that paper-and-ink brands are losing out to ‘retina display’ brands; books, magazines and newspapers are losing a huge amount of publicity by not having their covers exposed on public transport, not to mention in cafes, pubs and elsewhere. How can these brands remain in the minds of people – people who don’t spend time at newsstands or in physical bookshops? How can these brands feel attractive and seductive, and continue to have an identity that is intrinsically tied up with their readership, when we cannot see what people are reading? As Mai says, if we see a book being read by someone we find attractive or someone we want to emulate, there’s a good chance we’ll want to read that book too.

Brands that are increasingly hidden behind aluminium casing will need to work hard, through other mediums, to communicate what they are about, what we can get out of them and who they can help us become. MK

This article was initially published on the Flamingo London Blog. Founded in 1997, with offices in London, Singapore, Tokyo, New York and Shanghai, Flamingo London’s vision is to be the world’s leading authority in crafting successful and sustainable brands.

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One thought on “Let Me Judge Books by Their Cover

  1. Pingback: From A to B | Keziah Warner

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