Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover (Alone)

People are always saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” When they say this, of course, they aren’t talking about books at all–they’re talking about people. Usually, when somebody says this, they mean that you shouldn’t judge by outward appearance. Never mind the shoes, the clothes, the jewelry, the nails, the eyes–what really counts is what they’ve got on the inside. I have a problem with this.

The idea is not entirely without merit–people are always defying expectations. For example, my esteemed friend Mr. Ward Sell has a certain penchant for clothing of the “black” persuasion and, aside from lettering and the occasional splash of red, wouldn’t be caught dead in anything that might reasonably be considered “a color.” Popular culture likes to call this sort of wardrobe “emo” or “punk,” and immediately labels anyone sporting it as angry, depressed, anti-social, or even downright dangerous–you know, the sort of kid you might expect to bring a gun to school. Aran is none of these things. In fact, he’s so full of cheer that it’s practically dripping out his eyeballs. If I had “judged the book by its cover”–that is, allowed prevailing cultural beliefs to color (ha) my opinion of him when I first walked into that sparsely populated and professor-less lecture hall more than a year ago, I might have opted to sit somewhere else–and missed out on befriending one of my very favorite people.

So my issue, then, is not with the fundamental meaning behind the phrase. It’s more with how people choose to implement it, because I think they take it too far. True, clothing and bone structure do not define personality–but they certainly reflect it. Take me, for example. As I write this, I am dressed in a blouse, dark denim, an expensive leather jacket, and a pair of rainbow polka-dot galoshes. A strict book-cover philosophy would say that there is nothing here worth noting, but I beg to differ. This outfit says a lot about me. Let’s break it down:

1.) The blouse. I’m a professional. The blouse in and of itself doesn’t necessarily tell you this outright (I could just be a girl who likes button-downs), but coupled with the fact that I’m on a bus during commuting hour, heading away from the city, it’s pretty hard to miss.

2.) The Jeans. Clearly, I am aware of fashion trends, as I know enough to choose a pair of jeans that match what’s currently popular–dark denim with a skinny leg. The fact that I’m wearing jeans instead of slacks also tells you more about my job–it’s a casual work environment, without a strict dress code. Thus, I’m a professional, but likely not one of the more “serious” professions, like Law.

3.) The jacket. I’m tough–or, at the very least, I think I am, which is the key information here. Nobody wears a leather jacket if they don’t fancy themselves a bit of a bad ass, in theory if not in practice.

4.) The galoshes. A practical footwear choice for somebody who lives in “the rainy city,” but the rainbow polka dots keep it whimsical bordering on silly. Thus, it’s safe to assume that I’m happy to sacrifice style for function, but personality is mandatory–even if it makes me look silly.

All of these things are true. Are they the whole truth? Certainly not. But each provides one more piece of information to slot into the puzzle. This is why I think it’s a mistake to ignore “the cover,” if you will. The cover is designed, consciously or unconsciously, to reflect what’s inside. How somebody dresses won’t tell you everything about them, but it will tell you how they see themselves and, more importantly, how they want the world to view them. It might be something as simple as what musical subculture they belong to, like my monochromatic friend (that man’s love for Metallica borders on the unhealthy), or something far more complicated. Sometimes, if you’re really paying attention, you can find out things your subject doesn’t want you to know through an overlooked detail in their wardrobe choices.

This is all applicable, of course, to fiction. It’s important to know what a character looks like, and I don’t mean their ethereal good looks (physical attractiveness certainly has an impact on personality, but ultimately it’s not something anyone can control and therefore doesn’t consciously reflect personality). The things people use to cover themselves up often reveal more than they realize, and more than most people care to notice. You can use this in fiction, especially for secondary characters who don’t get inner monologues audible to the reader. A man in a worn leather jacket is interesting, but if that jacket is thrown on over 2/3rds of a three piece suit? That’s a personality.

Judgmentally yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” -Sherlock Holmes, Hound of the Baskervilles

P.S. Apologies to Aran, for my gratuitous teasing. :P

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