Judging the Book

One of George Eliot’s epigraphs in Middlemarch concerns what Marshall McLuhan, almost a century later and in a totally different context, would capsulize as ‘the medium is the message’:

1st Gent. How class your man? — as better than the most,
Or, seeming better, worse beneath that cloak?
As saint or knave, pilgrim or hypocrite?
2d Gent. Nay, tell me how you class your wealth of books
The drifted relies of all time.
As well Sort them at once by size and livery:
Vellum, tall copies, and the common calf
Will hardly cover more diversity
Than all your labels cunningly devised
To class your unread authors. 

‘Unread authors.’ That’s the content, the being ‘beneath the cloak.’ In this sense, what McLuhan said was never that revolutionary: You can’t judge a book by its cover. But we always have. The thing about McLuhan is that he became more interested in covers than in content, and just at a time when covers were, in fact, often more interesting. The fact of television, certainly, was more intriguing than its content—in the 1950s, at least.

Even so, content and medium are inextricably linked. That television’s content improved and widened has a great deal to do with how the medium of television improved and widened. In this sense, the medium is something like an empty bowl, the content whatever eventually fills it. At first, the bowl itself may produce oohs and aahs, but if it is ever filled with water (and water is easily available elsewhere), eventually it will be forgotten, even if used, as just another medium for water. If, on the other hand, it is filled first with beer, then wine, then another new and attractive drink, people will return to it over and over again. The medium may be the message, but that message still has something to do with the content.

The importance of the particulars of each instance of the medium has been recognized since long before George Eliot. What Walter Ong calls ‘literacy’ culture made judging the cover a part of selection of what content to enjoy. Pulp fiction attracted some people and repelled others, but it was always easily identifiable through the cheap paper (pulp) it was printed on and its lurid covers. Finely tooled and embossed leather covers generally signified a volume some one person (at least) felt worth saving for generations, perhaps.

With centuries between the introduction of moveable type and George Eliot’s novel, it had become commonplace, even done without conscious thought, to judge a book before opening it. One had to: there were just too many books to study each and every one (even today, we look back at only a small percentage of Victorian literature). Ways of narrowing the search for something to read or to study were necessary, and became more and more so, the more books there were to choose from. We developed even further ways of limiting the volumes we chose among, bookstores and libraries narrowing the choices for us, and we choosing even the different bookstores and libraries, dependent on our needs and desires (one would not look in a news stand for the latest from Walter Pater and would not expect to find the newest ‘penny dreadful’ in a university library).

These things were learned unconsciously through one’s environment. One could see who else was browsing a particular venue, who was looking as what. The cost and care of production and presentation, also, were immediately apparent. Different products were even available in different neighborhoods.

Today, as we progress from a ‘literacy’ environment to a ‘neteracy’ one, we are losing many of the environmental and physical signals that long helped us determine the subset of books (now of media of myriad type) that we want to choose within. This is difficult enough for those of us who grew up, at least, having learned a process of choice through physical distinction. It is almost impossible for the younger generation, for whom those distinctions never existed. When books don’t come from bookstores or libraries, the physical location becomes irrelevant—and they cannot use what others, people who we also judged by their appearances, are choosing to help them.

Because this sort of discrimination is not something my generation learned in school, it is not something most of us think of teaching. And, because we are now the ones in charge of our schools, it is not something often taught.

We need to change this, working to establish in even elementary-school students the ability to make quick choices on the internet, just was we learned to do for physical locations as we accompanied our parents around town as children.

The signals helping us make intelligent choices are there on the web, but they are different from those we used in the past. The sooner we start finding ways of teaching recognition of those signals, the sooner the next generations will be able to use the internet effectively.