Talking to Strangers and How to Judge a Book by Its Cover

At the beginning of March I found myself in a crowded North Wilmington coffee shop in search of electricity and an internet connection. We’d had a windstorm and my power was out. The electric company’s answering machine said it wouldn’t be back on for a couple of days, and I had work to do. My class had just started our books connoisseurship block, and I had readings to download.

Inside the coffee shop a denizen of another powerless home had just finished charging her phone and leaving, gave me her seat next to an outlet. The table was bigger than I needed, and soon an older gentleman asked if he and his friend could take the empty seats.

Despite my best intentions of getting work done, it didn’t take me long to give up on my reading and fall into conversation with them. They too had lost power and sought refuge at the coffee shop. When they inquired, I said I was a student. A follow up question about what exactly I was studying lead to an attempt to explain the idea of material culture to them, which is a challenge I perpetually enjoy. It seems that I’m always finding a new definition of the term.

I explained that at the moment I was reading about books; not to learn what was written in them, but to learn what they said in context; to understand them as objects. We talked about what books say sitting on a bookshelf (the following week we would read a piece from the New York Times about books bought by the foot by high-end interior decorators simply to fill shelves), versus what they might say open in your hand (or what you might do upon encountering a book which itself contained a hand – one traced on paper). The message of our book connoisseurship block was that books are objects as well as repositories for information, and this concept translated well. My tablemates nodded in appreciation.

The image of an early 19th century “giant” found in one of Winterthur’s rare books is accompanied by a paper cut out in the shape of his hand, found folded between the pages of another text. We studied these books, and many others, with Library Director Emily Guthrie during our books connoisseurship block. Photo by Katie Fitzgerald [Image description: Several rare books sit on a table. In the foreground, two large volumes are open. One shoes a “giant” standing beside a man of average height. On the other rests a paper cut out of a large human hand.]

Shortly after, with my readings downloaded and my computer battery charged, I headed to the gym. There the young man behind the front desk put down his book to swipe me in. Even face-down the paperback edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was instantly recognizable. The plot of the first Harry Potter novel is thoroughly emblazoned in my memory, but the sight of that cover was even more powerful – reminding me of a generation of my peers, hunched over a book in the playground, or jamming crumpled-but-beloved paperback pages into book bags. With that book in his hands, the man at the counter was an instant compatriot. As I walked into the gym, I was sure that, despite how the saying goes, this was a good day for judging books by their covers.

Winterthur’s rare books collection has many lessons to offer. In this picture our class explored the history of British design before departing for England in January. Two months later we found ourselves looking at some of these same books, only this time they were shut and we were studying their bindings. [Image description: Two students stand behind a table displaying a range of rare books.]


By Eliza West, WPAMC Class of 2019


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