Molly Fisk: Book. Cover. You Know the Drill.

15307831161_ee6e16c4b1_zPhoto by Digital Collections at the University of Maryland (Creative Commons License)

The strange thing about humans is how little one can deduce just by looking at them. Sure, there’s the obvious: tall, short, thin, stout, straight hair or curly, old or young. Skin color. Clothing style. Syntax. But even though our minds are usually making snap judgements and concocting stories about everyone we see, the real stories almost never show on the outside.

Take the man who just walked into the cafe where I’m writing. He’s got on lycra pants and a wind-breaker at 7 in the morning He’s maybe late 40s, early 50s? So, early morning sports enthusiast is an obvious conclusion, and maybe someone who’s trying to keep in shape as he gets older. Nowhere on his person is the slightest clue to his current profession, or any sign that in his youth he was a Calvin Klein underwear model.

Next in line for coffee is someone, also tall, about the same age, who I’ve been talking to over cappucinos for the last couple of months. Unless he speaks, you won’t find out he’s foreign-born, and unless your knowledge of French dialects is excellent, that he comes from a small town just outside Avignon. Even if you get this far, he’ll have to tell you himself that at the age of 16 he single-handedly packed up the contents of an entire castle.

These are larger-than-life examples, I know. But imagine, when you look around in line at the grocery store, how many of the people you see have just lost a parent — an awful but commonplace event that will happen to each one of us twice, if it hasn’t already.

We know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but most of us can’t help it, which is why book-cover design is still a booming business. It’s so human, for Pete’s sake, and we’re pure, unadulterated humans. But truly, the cover has got so little information. People walk around innocently in blue suit jackets and 20-year-old taupe cardigans looking ordinary, when it turns out they were once tortured in an Argentine prison and put on a plane in the middle of the night with no belongings or money and shipped to Sacramento, California. I’m not making this up — it’s the story of a woman I taught once in a memoir class at UC Davis Extension.

What thrills me most about this is the element of surprise. In this age of the interwebs, a person can gather a lot of information, and get to feeling kind of smug about it. I think it’s incredibly good for us to find out there’s more to learn. Maybe Sherlock Holmes would have deduced it, but I didn’t know, for instance, that a former resident of our county was once paid to go on national television in a bikini. Not only that, but it was one of the great old quiz shows, “I’ve Got a Secret” or “What’s My Line,” and comedian Soupy Sales drew an American flag on her stomach with Magic Marker.



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