I remember bringing the book Lolita to my middle school classroom for the first time – it was a great stir among the students. Soon after, the teacher came in and took the book away. The news traveled fast and soon it was known to everyone: somebody brought a piece of “smutty” literature to school. It became clear that, unfortunately, neither my classmates nor our middle school teacher was a fan of Vladimir Nabokov, a scholar of American literature of the 20th century. Nevertheless, while their lack of knowledge played a part in the misunderstanding, it’s also understandable considering the book’s cover. It looked like this:

Lolita – Penguin Putnam~trade’s Cover, London 2000

However, it is necessary to recognize that this misleading cover of Lolita is not an authentic reflection of the novel’s true essence or the author’s intentions. In fact, Nabokov himself expressed his dissatisfaction with some provocative covers that had been associated with his work. These covers, deliberately designed to grab attention and entice the audience, often depict a seductive teenage girl or employ suggestive imagery, which has led many to label Lolita as nothing more than pornography, obscuring the profound undertone behind it.

Lolita – Slovart’s cover, Bratislava 2019

On the contrary and quite ironically, the true focus of the book is the portrayal of its narrator, middle-aged Humbert Humbert, his hideous mind, and the scandalous crimes he commits in his self-absorption. Through this narrative, Nabokov examines the complexities of obsession, manipulation, and the frailty of morality in human nature. And these covers, which are one-sided and superficially focused on being eye-catching, clearly fail to bring that theme to the readers.

While Lolita could be a typical example of biased design intentions influencing the expectation of a book, the statement of “professional guidance” that has become more and more popular on book covers is also instrumental in misleading the audience’s points of view and choices of reading. In order to enhance their academic literacy and help them develop the habit of reading from an early age, it’s a very common practice for schools to provide a list of recommended books for students, which consequently gives rise to a new form of “reprints” of famous classics. These books, claiming to be “edited to curriculum standards,” “concise and comprehensible,” and “with professional guidance,” are in fact simplified editions of large masterpieces. Specifically geared toward students who have a need to read but lack the time or ability to do so, these special editions may indeed help them get a quick overview of the books to some extent, but the so-called “guidance” could sometimes be disturbing.

I still have such an edition of Les Misérables at home, which is less than one-fifth as thick as the original. In an effort to cram such a monumental work into a handy volume, the book crudely divides all the characters into two camps, pro and con. If this alone would be considered understandable due to space constraints, it is at least unfair to briefly comment that “morality is good and the law is bad,” which deviates from Hugo’s intentions. To take a step back, such a sentence may be suitable for telling a story to a small child yet learning to speak, but it’s not appropriate to be used as an introductory literary textbook or even titled as “professional.” This is not to deny the feasibility or significance of shortening classics or annotating these editions, but simply to argue that introductions that do not match the actual quality of the book can be misleading to readers and that this misdirection can be profound.

Les Misérables (Simplified version with professional guidance) – Jilin Publishing House’s Cover, Jilin 2019

Appearances can be deceiving in the world of books; however, in the end, it is not the cover or the introduction that defines a book, but the words and ideas within. Judging a book by its exterior is indeed easy and time-saving, but it’s important to keep in mind that it only provides a glimpse, a tantalizing hint of the content. To resist the temptation to let these visual cues dictate one’s opinions and choices would be somehow challenging, but necessary. After all, genuine literary experiences could only be acquired by curiosity, discernment, and a rigorous spirit of inquiry.