Books, Covers, and Masks

“Venice. The city of mirrors, the city of mirages.” Photo by Vlad Hilitanu, Unsplash.

I own an edition of The Harvard Classics. One of the frustrating things about it is the process I have to follow to locate something I want to read. All the books have the same front cover; the back covers are blank; the spines display a book’s contents, by author or title. But, there are no volume numbers on the books. So, if I am looking for something in particular, for example, the philosophical writings of Descartes, I have to consult an index in Volume 50, the last book in the set. That’s only the first step, however. Next, I have to count the books manually from the beginning to the number of the one I want. This approach assumes that I’ve shelved the books in the order listed in the index, which I have. Descartes, by the way, is in book number thirty-four, along with other French and English philosophers. Not all editions of The Harvard Classics lack volume numbers.

This search process is a minor annoyance. The contents, once located, redeem the effort involved in finding them. But it reminds me of an episode in George Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evans) The Mill on the Floss. The young Maggie Tulliver is reading a book while Mr. Riley pays a visit to her father. Maggie, her father, and Mr. Riley are all in the same room. At one point, Maggie accidentally drops her book, and it is retrieved by Mr. Riley, who, glancing at it, is shocked to find that Maggie is reading The Political History of the Devil by Daniel Defoe. Mr. Tulliver, who is quite proud of his daughter’s reading ability, is, nevertheless, a bit embarrassed by the book’s title and attempts to explain how he came by it.

‘Why, it’s one o’ the books I bought at Partridge’s sale. They was all bound alike – it’s a good binding, you see – an’ I thought they’d be all good books. There’s Jeremy Taylor’s “Holy Living and Dying” among ’em; I read in it often of a Sunday’ (Mr Tulliver felt somehow a familiarity with that great writer because his name was Jeremy), ‘and there’s a lot more of ’em, sermons mostly, I think; but they’ve all got the same covers, and I thought they were all o’ one sample, as you may say. But it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside. This is a puzzlin’ world.’

Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss (Penguin Classics). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

“But it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside” appears to be the seminal text for the often-heard statement, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” There is a lot of wisdom in this common saying. Jules Verne provides a colorful illustration of the phrase’s meaning in Around the World in Eighty Days. In Chapter 6, Detective Fix is waiting, impatiently, on the pier in Suez for the arrival from Brindisi of the steamship Mongolia. He is one of several detectives and police officers worldwide who are looking for a man who robbed the Bank of England of a considerable sum of money. Detective Fix has a description of the suspect provided by the head of London’s Metropolitan Police. It’s all he has to go on.

On the pier with Fix is the Suez British consul. While he admires Fix’s determination, he is skeptical of his being able to identify the culprit using the description he has. He tells Fix that: “given the circumstances I’m afraid your task will not be an easy one. You must realize that from the description you’ve received the thief is a perfectly respectable-looking person.” (Verne, Jules. Around the World in Eighty Days (p. 2). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. Translation by Michael Glencross.) 

Fix, whom we soon learn to be a man with a high opinion of his abilities, replies:

‘My dear consul,’ the police inspector replied in a dogmatic tone of voice, ‘great thieves always look like respectable people. You must understand that people who look like crooks have only one option, to remain on the right side of the law. Otherwise they would be arrested. It’s the honest-looking faces you have to examine closely. A difficult task, I admit, and one that makes this not just a job but an art.’

Verne, Jules. Ibid.

It’s the honest-looking faces we have to examine closely! One morning I was sitting in a restaurant in Philadelphia, enjoying a cup of coffee and reading a newspaper when a fellow came over to my table. I looked up; I didn’t know him. He said to me, “I just want to tell you that you look so wise and peaceful.” I smiled and thanked him, but reminded him that looks are sometimes deceiving.

I associate with Chabad, a Jewish Orthodox Hasidic group. It’s a challenging path for me; for its ardent practitioners, true Chabadniks, the movement can be very demanding. One of the customs that Chabad men practice, for example, is not to shave their beards, or even, what’s more, to trim them. The men dress modestly, as well, which often translates into wearing only black and white clothing. One of the problems for me in following these customs is that it makes me appear more spiritual, more learned than I am. Often I feel as if I am an actor, or wearing a mask that deceives others, leads them to make false assumptions about me.

This feeling bothered me so much that I finally went to speak with a Chabad rabbi about it, a man I’ve known for some time. I told him that I felt as if I were a liar, that my outsides did not match my insides, that I was, in some sense, a great pretender. He gave me a profound suggestion and not one I expected. Instead, he said, of trying to make my outsides match my insides, I should work to make my insides match my outsides! In other words, make my book match its cover. It’s one of the hardest pieces of advice I’ve ever received.

Here’s one of my favorite videos illustrating the wisdom of not judging a book by its cover, from Britain’s Got Talent, 2012. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear Charlotte, Jonathan’s singing partner, say it.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎