Exhibit | April 20, 2021

The Institute Library Presents Cover Story: In Praise of the Exterior Surface

Courtesy of the Institute Library

An exhibition celebrating book covers is on view at New Haven’s Institute Library through June 1.

New Haven, CT — The Gallery Upstairs at the Institute Library presents Cover Story: In Praise of the Exterior Surface, an exhibition celebrating book covers from our historic collection.

The origin of the saying "Don't judge a book by its cover" is often attributed to a 1944 edition of the linguistics journal American Speech: "You can’t judge a book by its binding." The origins are, in fact, much older, with the Roman thinker Juvenal and the Victorian era English writer George Eliot each admonishing against the seduction of superficial appearances. It became further codified in the 1946 pulp novel The Glass Room by Edwin Rolfe and Lester Fuller: "You can never tell a book by its cover." All of which prompts the questions: Should one NEVER judge a book by its cover? Is doing so always superficial, or is the artistry deserving of greater appreciation?

Founded before the Civil War, The Institute Library has, over the years, accumulated a surprising and often mysterious collection of fiction, biography, travel, history, drama, and poetry. Perusing the stacks during this COVID-19 pandemic has led to some happy discoveries too good not to share. This spring, why not present items from the library as art, thus opening selections from our collection to the digital realm for the first time? This exhibit―actual and virtual― takes some of our finest, funniest, and most intriguing book covers designed to tantalize and inspire. Chosen by curator Martha Willette Lewis and gallery intern Ava Hathaway Hacker, this exhibit is meant to please, delight, and surprise.

Courtesy of the Institute Library

Are these books the best reading in the collection? No, although certain volumes contain exceptionally fine texts indeed. They were picked entirely because of their exterior display and not on their interior literary worth. Some offer exciting reading, others not so much.

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is a metaphorical phrase meaning one should not prejudge the worth or value of something by its outward appearance alone. It also smacks of the puritanical mistrust of the colorful, the beautiful, and the conspicuous, which favors the precision of word over the pleasures of image. Literacy is an elite, learned skill, unlike images, which may be appreciated by all who see. Our early ancestors and children both first express themselves through pictures. The egalitarian nature of images, the primacy, is thus potentially also uncivilized, wild. There is also the faint whiff of disdain: images are not to be trusted, flimflam, magic tricks, sleight of hand. Book covers are enticing con artists used to sell the text within.

Since rules are made to be broken, and being lectured about what not to do is essentially a challenge, the Gallery Upstairs at the Institute Library will test this adage empirically and present a smorgasbord of titles from our collection for you to frivolously, shallowly, pick your favorites. There is no more appropriately superficial place to get judgmental or to just click one’s preferences than social media. To that end, we are running this event as a social media beauty contest―do YOU have a favorite?

We crave your "likes" and "loves” and will greedily count and tabulate until we have a winner. It’s spring, and the pandemic is over a year old. We need diversion. Let’s be frivolous and unapologetically revel in this unique collection.

The Institute Library was founded in 1826 as the Apprentices’ Literary Association, an educational society dedicated to the "mutual assistance in the attainment of useful knowledge" through a shared book collection and weekly discussion meetings. It soon expanded into a full membership library with its own building, collection, and events. The library maintained an active and lively roster of distinguished visiting lecturers with an emphasis on liberty, freedom, and progressive ideals. To this day, the library is an active site for education, history, and civil discourse.

The Gallery Upstairs at the Institute Library focuses on timely exhibitions relating to words, books, archives, or collections, focusing on important issues surrounding social justice though the paring of contemporary art and historic documents, often from the library collection. Martha Willette Lewis has been the resident curator since 2015 and has put together over 15 exhibitions to date.