Thursday, May 15, 2014

Africa is Not a Country, But It Has Only One Book Cover

Right now you're dashing for the end-of-the-year finish line.  But make some time to take a look at this great post on the Africa is a Country site and the follow-up article by Michael Silverburg in The Atlantic, "Why Every Book About Africa Has the Same Cover."

Well, perhaps not every book about Africa has the same cover. But Simon Stevens of Columbia University collected and offers as evidence quite a boat-load here, enough to make you ask why Africa's design short-hand has to be an acacia tree against a dramatic sunrise/set just . . .  so many times.  And it was his brilliant graphic and comment that got this discussion going most recently.

It's not the first time publishers have been called out for stereotypical images on their book covers. (Take a look at this post about how publishers package translations of Middle Eastern books.)  Nor will it be the last. But is there anything we, as teachers, can make of such a discussion?

Don't judge a book by its cover, we've been told. But the cover (including the title and author) is the first piece of information a book offers us. That cover is intended to have an effect on us--i.e., "ooh, I must buy this book!" The images publishers choose are meant to connect with us emotionally and aesthetically as well as intellectually to produce this "ooh, I must buy this book!" effect. So the question the Africa is a Country post raises is, do publishers actually think that "Africa" can be positively linked in our hearts and minds to only one image (h/t @meowmusiq) ?

It's time to include book covers in book discussion. Not as an add-on or extra credit option, but as an essential part of coming to terms with a literary work. Maybe whenever we give students a book (especially a popular one) we should assess that book's cover, ask ourselves and our students why that particular design might have been chosen. What does it tell us about the story inside, even before we've opened the book? Do they think the image works? Or would they have chosen a different design?

Teachable moments.  There are just so many of them.

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