I first read it in the late eighties on the recommendation of my dad. I don’t know what I expected to see on the cover of On The Road in 2014. A simple red cover with the Penguin logo. Maybe a sketch of jazz musicians and hitchhikers. Ideally, I’d find a bohemian version of myself as a young man – but how realistic was that?
If the cover had to feature real people, I’d have settled for the classic picture of Kerouac and Neal Cassady, young beats looking the way I wished I’d looked as a young man.
But the last people I expected – or wanted – to see on the cover of On The Road were the actors Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart. Accompanied by those five words loathed by readers everywhere: Now a Major Motion Picture.
Really? Isn’t the fact a book has sold millions of copies worldwide, influenced generations and been proclaimed as one of the best 100 novels of the last century good enough? Do we have to link the book to actors best known for their work in Tron, the Twilight series and Maleficent?
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of books with movie stars on the covers. I go out of my way to find copies published before they’re turned into films, not because I’m a literary snob, but because I generally hate the looks of the covers and I feel it actually degrades books to suggest the main thing that might make them interesting is the fact they’ve been turned into motion pictures.
Here’s a novel thought for you: I love reading, because I like books.
That’s right – I’m a reader, I’m proud and I’m sick of being buffeted by the winds of e-commerce, mass marketing and cross-promotion.
A charter for readers
And so, with that in mind, I’ve decided it’s time for a Charter of Reader's Rights and Freedoms. You can join me with your own suggestions, but in the meantime, here are a few of my own pet peeves to launch our revolution.
1. No more movie stars on book covers:
2. Publish hardbacks and paperbacks at the same time:
Why do hardbacks even exist in this day in age?
It’s certainly not because technology or some kind of natural order demands a book has to appear in a format that can kill you if you fall asleep in bed before publishers can find a way to print it for half the price in paperback.
Can there be any better demonstration of naked greed?
3. Don’t give away plots in introductions and back cover blurbs:
Is keeping a secret that hard?
If authors like Michael Connolly and Jo Nesbo can keep readers guessing up until the final paragraphs of an entire novel, surely someone can write a dust cover jacket summary without giving away the ending.
Ditto for introductions. Case in point: I recently read Graham Greene’s The Heart of The Matter for the first time. Something devastating and crucial to the whole thing happens in the last 20 pages.
So why did James Wood have to say exactly what that was in his introduction to my Penguin Classics Edition?
I get it; you’re the smart kind of guy who writes introductions to “important” books as opposed to the novels themselves. Don’t take it out on me.
4. Enough already about e-books:
I don’t want to take anything away from people who love reading on their Kindles and Kobos. But I like old-fashioned books, and I’m tired of being made to feel like a dinosaur.
I like looking at the rows of books I’ve spent time with. I enjoy pulling old friends off the shelf once in a while and searching for passages I enjoyed, and I love putting bookmarks given me by loved ones between ink and paper pages.
And you know what? I think I’m not alone, and I think we’re the ones keeping these troubled places called bookshops alive.
5. A limitation on copycat books:
A million unpublished writers out there have original stories to tell, so why do publishers keep searching for imitations of books that have already been hits?
You know what I’m talking about. Someone writes a bestseller about how a year spent learning the art of baking bread taught them a lesson about life, and suddenly we’re inundated with existential takes on everything from butchery to bathrooms.
Did we really need a whole shelf of books about inspiring animals: Marley and Me; The Puppy Diaries; Alex and Me; Wesley The Owl; or my personal favourite Dewey the Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World.
You love your pet. Enough already.
6. Update author's photos:
Getting old is tough, I know. But surely, there should be some type of truth in advertising law with regards to the pictures that accompany those over-explained back cover blurbs. Or at least a 20-year limitation on using the same photograph.