A new book by Jhumpa Lahiri is in stores across India this weekend. The Clothing Of Books comprises 71 pages (including an afterword) of very large typeface. It isn’t a novella or a novelette; its publishers are calling the long essay a “non-fiction book”. This bit of packaging terminology is important because while the book is a meditation on the visual language of book covers and their relationship with the words they wrap, it contains long passages on the idea of rigged packaging.
Around this time last year, the Pulitzer prize-winning author confused the world with a short memoir called In Altre Parole, written in Italian and rendered in English by the acclaimed translator Ann Goldstein. I defended the book faithfully, at parties and in print, as an important work—a peek into the workings of a great creative mind of our times. Sure, the book was indulgent, feasting on every conceivable metaphor to describe her relationship with the Italian language: It was an older lover who didn’t have time for her frivolities, it was the deep end of the pool, it was the bridges of Venice. In one leap, she compared her late entry to the language with Henri Matisse’s later-life experiments with gouaches découpés. But the book exposed a deep vulnerability, chronicling her steps backwards from a virtuoso in English to a novice in Italian.
The Clothing Of Books, on the other hand, is obsessed entirely with her sense of image and insecurity. Born from a lecture she delivered in Italian at Florence’s Festival Degli Scrittori, it starts out with Lahiri’s fondness for her cousins’ school uniforms during her annual visits to Kolkata. As a child of immigrants growing up in America, “she dreamt of sameness, even invisibility”. The rest of it is about how book covers—both her own and those of others—thrill, depress or infuriate her. She writes about the silence and mystery of the naked book, without visuals or blurbs to distract. “I want the first words read by the reader of the book to be written by me,” she implores.
Her distaste for the exotic flowers and henna-painted hands that have plagued the international editions of her books has a broader resonance in the ongoing discourse on book packaging: Contemporary African novels frequently get the acacia tree treatment with orange skies, based on The Lion King view of the continent. There’s a moving anecdote about Lahiri being sent a book written by another writer of Indian origin with a cover identical to her first book, Interpreter Of Maladies. She’s heartbroken at the knowledge that covers aren’t really made to measure. And as in this case, one size can fit many.
The awe that In Altre Parole induced was, in large parts, because it made its reader privy to a personal challenge.
We always want to root for our heroes; we want to cheer them on when they embark upon grand campaigns such as forging a new literary identity. We want to hold our heroes to a higher moral standard and certainly don’t want to imagine them looking at their own book covers and sensing a loss of control.
Browsing bookstalls at Kolkata’s College Street with Lahiri in December 2015 is high up on my list of adventures as a feature writer—the list includes playing foam-ball tennis with Roger Federer (it was for 15 seconds) and having chef Sergi Arola feed me an entire meal blindfolded. More than her celebrity, interacting with Lahiri is special because she has a way of making her experience of the world singular. She is a second-generation immigrant in America like many others, and she didn’t particularly suffer a socially or economically disadvantaged childhood, but she has a knack for translating her experience, which nourishes all her writing, into a precious thing deserving of attention.
And the last thing one wants to read from a universally loved writer is a shallow meditation on wanting to fit in.
The writer tweets as @aninditaghose