On the Impossibility of Judging a Book by its Cover

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Eve Arnold describes the scene in her famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses: ‘she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time. She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it—but she found it hard going.’ Which is not at all bad going, as, when it comes to this notoriously difficult book, many would surely wish they could say as much.

But when it comes to Marilyn Monroe herself, and the peculiar breed of fandom her celebrity entails, there is often a tendency in her adorers to arduously try to reconstruct aspects of her life in as much detail as possible, often from the scantiest details of them available. The beholder of this photograph might indeed feel that ‘irresistible compulsion’ – as Walter Benjamin puts it in his ‘Little History of Photography’ – ‘to search [the] picture for the tiny spark of contingency, the here and now, with which reality has, so to speak, seared through the image-character of the photograph, to find the inconspicuous place where, within the suchness [Sosein] of that long-past minute, the future nests still today—and so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.’

But leaving aside any such speculations on Monroe’s literary prowess, which, no doubt, has so often spoken for itself, we will rather concentrate on the phenomenon of two books in Joyce Studies appearing at the same time with the same cover. The occasions of the publications of Lee Spinks’ James Joyce: A Critical Guide and Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us mightn’t have been cause for much celebration to non-Joyceans, but the fact that they both have the same image as their cover does give a certain inflection to the old adage that advises us ‘not to judge a book by its cover.’ They are very different works from very different approaches. What this photograph on the front of both does though, is point to the power of the simulacrum: however well we know not to judge a book by its cover, our interest with both may be initially piqued for the same reason of this very cover.

The photograph itself is thus exorbitant in this respect, but for what reason? Dialectically, we could say it’s for this reason: that it embodies the old adage itself; that it stresses the impossibility of judging a book by its cover: whatever the most common preconceptions that go with Marilyn Monroe (the common tropes of bimboism and vacuous popular culture) and James Joyce (the charges of elitism and highbrow impenetrability) are, they are blasted from their continuities by this picture. As Declan Kiberd quotes in his book: ‘‘a major work will establish a genre or abolish it,’ said Walter Benjamin, ‘and the perfect work will do both.’’ In this instance of Joyce Studies, Eve Arnold’s picture of Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce in the playground has done just that.

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