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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Things that are weird in Israel #16: Book covers

image of popular book covers in Israel

Maybe it’s just me?  Or maybe you’ve wondered about this, too?

Read on and let me know in the comments.

I’ll start by saying I love a great book cover.  It’s almost the most important part of the book. 

Sure, we’d all like to think we don’t judge books by their covers, but really… we do.  Of course, the inside is MOST important, but you’re never going to get to the inside if the outside is lousy.

Am I right?

Which is why book covers in this country continue to perplex me.  Astonish me.  Surprise me with the depths of terribleness to which they are allowed to sink.

To give you a sense of how awful things are, here is a fairly random sampling of some books in translation, so you can compare them to their English equivalents.

English original Hebrew translation
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(In some cases, I don’t like the English cover very much, either, but at least it seems like an effort has been made – not just slapping text over a stock photo.)

It’s like the entire publishing industry has travelled back in time 20 years and been handed a desktop computer on which to design their book covers.  In fact, it’s exactly like that.

(Except for one of these that looks like the publishers had their two-year-old illustrate the cover instead.)

Lest you think this is a problem only for books in translation, let me assure you that almost every book in the store meets the same low, low standards of design excellence.

For more than two years, since I first wandered into my first Steimatzky’s (ubiquitous chain bookstore; another is Tzomet Sefarim (book junction)), I have wondered about this.  I decided at first that it was a cultural thing… that Israelis totally prefer these types of covers.

That may be so, but hanging out with children’s-book people, I did recently stumble upon part of the answer:  there aren’t a lot of good Hebrew fonts.  So unless you want to hand-draw the title, you’ll be stuck choosing from a few basic options, ranging from blocky and weird to kind of curvy, swoopy and weird.

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This may look like a lot of variation, but if you consider that in English, there are thousands of choices, with new fonts being released every day, it’s really not much.

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True, there are a few novelty fonts, and publishers sometimes resort to these, but sometimes that is not a good thing.  Unlike in English, there isn’t really the serif / sans-serif distinction to make certain words stand out.  And there aren’t a lot of ways to make one character different from the others.

So this is funny and weird and all… but how is this relevant to us as olim??? 

Chances are, if you want to read John Irving or Stephen King, you’re not going to pick it up in Hebrew at your local Steimatzky.  Unless your Hebrew is way better than mine.

But what it does mean is that walking into a bookstore can feel like a strange, foreign experience.  I’ve always loved bookstores, felt comfortable in them.  But here, they are a strange and not always welcoming place.

For a while, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  Sure, the books are in another language… but they are also designed differently, and seeing shelves and shelves stocked with these strange covers can have a cumulative effect that is overwhelming.

It’s that “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto,” moment when you realize you’re in a foreign country – even if it’s a foreign country you happen to love.

Am I complaining?

Not at all.  When I write anything that sounds slightly critical of Israel, people sometimes take it the wrong way.  Let me be 100% clear:  I’m happy to be here and I love every inch of this place.  Even my local Tzomet Sefarim.

But I also want to let you know that it’s normal to be overwhelmed.  At least, normal for me.  Often at odd times and places, like in a bookstore.  It’s normal to feel like a stranger here from time to time… even if Israel is indisputably home.

Happy Yom HaAtzmaut!

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


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