In the English speaking world today, there is a popular saying that goes, “Never judge a book by its cover.” This saying has changed over the years, as languages always do.
As a young child, I remember learning this saying as, “You can’t always judge a book by its cover.” It has changed from a cautionary warning, to a command. “You can’t always…” has become “Never…”
I’ve been thinking about the role that judging plays in the dance world. We have explicit competitions, but also many informal judgments, including the fundamental decision as to whether or not to accept a dance with a partner. I would like to explore why books have covers and how we practice making good judgments on outward appearances, both in books and dancers alike.
Let’s start with why books have covers. They are there to help you decide whether to read the book or not. If you decide to read the book, the cover helps you form a pre-judgment on what the book will try to say. After reading the book, you can go back and see whether the cover did a good job summarizing the book or not. Authors, editors and publishers put a lot of effort into crafting the covers of their books. They try to capture the spirit, the truth, the meaning of their books. Like most things in life, their success in this regards is in the eye of the beholder.
That being said, practically speaking, it is silly to imagine never judging a book by its cover. Can you imagine walking into a book store and only deciding to buy a book after you have read it completely? If nobody ever judged a book by its cover, there would be an awful lot of unread books lying around.
If it is silly to never judge a book by its cover, on the other hand, it is wise to keep in mind that your judgment could very well be wrong. A wrong judgment is one that is unfair to the author, editor, and publisher. Along with the right to judge a book by its cover, comes the responsibility to admit when you are wrong.
To continue with the book metaphor, in addition to judging a book by its cover, you can also ask other people what they think about the book. Their opinion on the book. You hear things such as –
“I hear that book is…” “Don’t read that book…” “You’d really enjoy this book…”
This is book gossip!
Other people’s opinions of books are important because they often tell you more about the person gossiping than the book itself. After reading the book, you can decide if the book gossip was fair or not. If you are the author of the book, gossip is an excellent opportunity for self reflection.
Combining book gossip with a book’s cover means that making good judgments is that much more difficult. You have to consider not just the book cover, but the judgment of the other person, as well as whether that person has good or bad intentions with their gossip. Malicious gossip can destroy a person’s reputation and tear apart communities. We must be on guard against it.
If, gentle reader, making a good judgment on a book cover sounds like a lot of work… that’s because it is. Good judgment is very much a learned and practiced skill. It comes with experience and needs to be constantly tuned to the wider world of experiences.
This is why I suspect that the saying has morphed over the years to “Never judge a book by a cover.” This command is direct and easy to follow. You just do what you are told. You don’t judge. You are relieved of any personal responsibility. There is no need for you to struggle with complicated judgment skills.
However, whenever you don’t practice a skill, it atrophies. It weakens. If you neglect a skill for long enough, eventually you loose that skill completely.
Fortunately, dancing is an excellent way to practice your judgment skills. Dancing encourages you to observe both other dancers and yourself. We practice in front of mirrors, so that we know what we look like to other dancers. We watch other dancers on the dance floor, to see what they do well. Being a part of a dancing community, we are exposed to gossip about other dancers.
If observing other dancers is practicing judging their covers, then actually dancing with them is reading their book. Part of the fun of dancing is seeing what other people really have to say about themselves. There are endless opportunities to practice your judgment skills in the social dancing world. I say go ahead and make those judgments, but always try your best to be fair with them.
Getting back to books and their covers, perhaps the most thrilling feeling is to pick up a book, take a peek at its cover and realize that the cover is leaving something unsaid. The equivalent of a Mona Lisa smile. My judgment is usually, “Why yes, I will read this book, tell me what you have to say.”
I always say yes to dancers with mysterious smiles too.