Cover Me

by J.D. Rhoades


A few days ago, I was browsing in one of those big chain bookstores when a title on the “staff recommendations” shelf   caught my eye:



Two thoughts went through my head, one following hard on the heels of the other: (1) “Hmmm, that looks interesting,” and (2) “If you are ever seen in public reading this book, you will be marked for life as the skeeziest middle-aged creep ever to walk the planet.”

I didn’t get the book.

Yes, I’m one of those people who  read in public. You can see us in the parks and restaurants, our meals or drinks barely tasted, our minds wandering in whatever world we’ve decided to carry with us to wherever we’ve come to rest. But as a public reader, I occasionally find myself leaving a book at home, even one I’m totally into, because of the cover.

I’ve heard that in Japan, it’s not considered remarkable for middle-aged salarymen to openly read hard-core pornographic manga on the subway. But I can’t imagine even sitting in Mac’s Breakfast Anytime reading,  for example,



without drawing stares.


It was awkward enough the Christmas I opened a box at my in-laws’ house and pulled out a gift from my sister-in-law:


 which resulted in those frozen smiles my mother- and father-in-law  always get when they’re confronted with something even vaguely risque. (They are, to be fair, extremely nice people, but they don’t know from hardboiled, much less noir).

It’s not just the covers with steamy subject matter or scantily clad women. I don’t go in much for self-help or self-improvement books (can’t you tell?) and I’ve never read


But can you imagine reading it in front of a room full of people? And what would you think of someone reading one of these:


over their MegaMaxi Enchilada and ElGrande Nachos (with extra cheese) at Bob’s Burrito Barn? Nothing complimentary, I’m thinking.

Culturally sensitive guy that I am, I once left


at home because I was paranoid about getting the stink-eye from the wait staff at the Peking Wok.

I’m sure that the science fiction fans among you are familiar with the phenomenon. SF and fantasy, after all,  are famous  for some of the cheesiest, worst-conceived covers ever. There are, of course, the types of fantasy covers that John Scalzi once summed up as “strippers with swords,” but there are some classic SF covers that, shall we say, give one pause. Like these…



…which are, to put it mildly, Freudian as hell.

What do you think? Am I just being neurotic?  Do you read in public? Have you ever left a book home that you wanted to read because of the cover? Or do you just not give a damn? I’m particularly interested in hearing from the romance fans, who are used to stuff like this:


(Okay, that’s not an actual title. It’s from this great website of Romance Covers That  Never Were, which I recommend to all).

Hope all the US ‘Rati have a happy Thanksgiving, and all our non-US friends…well, have a good Thursday!


26 thoughts on “Cover Me

  1. Michael Carlyle (NOT A REAL AUTHOR)

    Recently bought Lolitta and I have the same quandry. Although the cover on it is quite tame.

    Covers don’t usually embarrass me, but the content of the book sometimes might. Take for example that cover with "VIRGIN HEAT" blasting out of it in bold-faced Arial font. Sure that’s a bit brazen and all a-blazen, but it’s also got a cute lil’ kit-tay on it as well. Who doesn’t like kit-tays? I’d read that sucker in a nunnery without a touch of shame on my face.

    But the steamier parts of Wizard’s First Rule – a (ahem) personal fancy of mine – would send me cowering into the nearest port-o-potty.

  2. tess gerritsen

    avid romance readers long ago discovered the usefulness of the fake book cover. Take any embarrassingly lurid paperback, slip on the book cover, and you can take it anywhere.

  3. Kaye Barley

    WHAT a fun way to start the day! I’m getting ready to spend the day Christmas shopping with my Mom. On shopping days like this I usually find myself sitting on a bench in the middle of the Boone Mall with a book in my hands while my little mom scampers back to "one more store, just one more time." As much as the devil in me would love to sit on that bench with a book with a racy cover (forget about sitting there with one of those Dune books you show here!), I just can’t bring myself to do it. For one thing, I don’t want to constantly be answering the question – "WHAT are you reading?!?" Pfft. Thankfully, the book I just dropped into my purse for today’s reading has a very non-controversial cover.
    Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

  4. Wilfred Bereswill

    Fun stuff JD. I’ve written a few short stories that if ever published, my wife has declared she would divorce me nd find new friends. I think she’s kidding about the divorce part.

    I was careful about books I took along on trips to China. They can be…well inconsistent, when it comes to their pornagraphy determinations and censorship. I didn’t want to land in a Chinese jail.

  5. karen from mentor

    I started laughing at this line and didn’t stop JD!

    "you will be marked for life as the skeeziest middle-aged creep ever to walk the planet"

    I say be loud and proud about whatever you’re reading. I always have a book in my purse. I read in public, I laugh out loud at what I’m reading in public. But I also read Why your life Sucks and What you can do about it… maybe that opened me up to being less concerned about what other people think of me [that last part might be true…but it may also have been inserted just for comedic purposes]
    Really enjoyed the post, ESPECIALLY the covers….
    thanks for the giggles and the link to the great romance covers that never were…. oh man.
    Karen :0)

  6. Dana King

    Great way to start the day. I rarely leave the house without a book, and I read during my 35 minute subway ride to and from work. I’m sometimes careful about letting the cover of a book be too obvious, especially on Metro, but the only time O can remember holding a book to be read at home only was Christa Faust’s MONEY SHOT. That book also got my Anthony vote for Best Cover.

  7. John McFetridge

    Steve’s right. Now we know what will drive the e-book market.

    I got stared at once on the subway reading a scary looking book called, "The Devil’s Rght Hand." I tried to stare the person down but it just made me look like the skeesiest middle-aged creep on the train.

  8. toni mcgee causey

    hmmm. Maybe we’re looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope.

    Don’t wanna get asked to be on yet another PTA meeting? Bring THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND and display it prominently.

    Tired of being asked to chaperone the teens’ dances at the high school? Bring LOLITA to the next one.

    There’s an entire cottage industry here.

  9. Gayle Carline

    First of all, I’m a little concerned about the staff of a bookstore who recommend a memoir about promiscuity – let’s just call it one of those things that make me go "hmm." I am quite proud of any book I’m reading, and have no problem showing my face buried in its cover, anywhere I go. Which either means my reading list is too tame or I have no shame. Since one of the books I recently read was LJ Sellers’ The Sex Club (BTW, it’s a mystery), perhaps it’s the latter.

  10. Stacy McKitrick

    I’m a romance reader (1 of many genres I read) and I read in public. I guess I just get so involved in the book, that I don’t even notice if anyone is looking at what I’m reading. And do I care? Not really.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Gooood timing on this post, Dust. Perfectly appropriate, as I was hiding my book from the eyes of onlookers at the local Mexican restaurant yesterday. It’s called "Sex Workers" and features a back-side photo of a naked woman on the cover. It’s actually research for my second novel, but I can’t go screaming that from the top of my lungs every time someone shoots me a glance. It is a book of interviews with woman who work in the sex trade. My eleven year old boy just noticed that I was reading it yesterday and he kept trying to peek at the cover. We have a saying in our home – "You can’t watch this movie, it’s a daddy/mommy movie," or "You really can’t read Boulevard, it’s a daddy/mommy book."
    When he was trying to get a gander at "Sex Workers" I told him, "You can’t read this book. It’s not even a daddy/mommy book….it’s a DADDY book through-and-through."

  12. Celine

    I’ve been known to select my public reading the same way I sometimes select the music I blast out the car window — to confound expectations. People don’t expect somebody who looks like a middle-aged mom to be listening to AC/DC, or to be reading space opera, and it messes with their heads. Also, if I’m reading space opera in public, it’s likely to attract other people who read space opera, and that’s a Good Thing.

  13. pari noskin taichert

    Soo o o, Dusty . . .

    Great post.

    But I’m kind of with Toni here. Book covers as weapons. Don’t be embarrassed. Use them to get what you want. Confound your neighbors. Mortify the busybodies. Blast expectations.

    I think I’m going get me a couple of those doozies for upcoming meetings at my kids’ schools . . .

  14. Louise Ure

    If it’s a hard cover, I always take off the cover in public. It saves it from a rough and tumble life in my purse and I don’t have to answer questions about it.

    But "Climb My Pelvis?" With a title like that I’d be carrying it around in my hand!

  15. Stacia Decker

    I read both MONEY SHOT and CRUEL POETRY on the subway, but we did put a gun on the US edition of Declan Burke’s THE BIG O just to make things clear.

  16. Dave Zeltserman


    I’m like you, I read often in public, and certain book covers I wouldn’t feel comfortable displaying in public. I’ve also passed on buying books with grisly or disturbing covers for the simple matter that I didn’t want to look at those for several days while reading the book. So far I’ve been blessed with my own publishers coming up with brilliant but noncontroversial covers for my books.


  17. inkgrrl

    Ya know, I’d never really noticed that those Dune books were all penii akimbo – thank you so much for calling that to my attention 😉 As for the others, I’d think the fluffy white kitten would really be the big question mark for a non-participating observer.

  18. Dana King

    After reading Stacia’s comment, I immediately went to to see what their cover for THE BIG O looked like. Alas, it displays the same as the US version. Bummer.

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    Great blog. Love some of those covers, but I find non-fiction is just as good for scaring people in public. Read an illustrated guide to forensic pathology and you always have a seat left next to you on a train. I had to stop reading THE IMPROVISED MUNITIONS HANDBOOK away from home, though …

    And yes, it’s amazing to watch people on the Japanese subway reading manga porn. Brings a whole new meaning to ‘graphic’ novel!

  20. Katherine C.

    Dusty, this is why God invented the turtle back (slip-on book covers). I don’t always use mine but if there’s a particularly embarrassing one I make sure I’ve got it covered, mostly because I don’t want to hear the derisive comments about my reading choices. And I don’t use the turtle back just for "questionable" covers either. I put everything in them from Jane Austen and Agatha Christie to Julie Garwood, especially as I always have to have a book with me (you never know when you might get a few minutes) and prefer paperbacks and the covers keep the book from getting torn up in my purse/bag/wherever I cram it to take along.

  21. Jill James

    Thanks for the laugh for the day. I’m a romance fan, I read them anywhere, I have received comments, my fave, "That’s porn you know." My answer, "Yes it is, and your problem with that is?"

  22. Fran

    Heh, love it!

    I read on the bus and I flaunt my covers with pride, but then of course I WANT to get into a discussion about books so I can sell them.

    I even displayed Sarah Katherine Lewis’s "Sex and Bacon" with a certain wicked joy, and people looked at me askance, which made me chuckle. Yeah, it’s not a mystery, it’s a local sex worker’s take on life, but it’s a hoot and I laughed out loud on the bus while reading it.

    Hey, I’m a bookseller. We’re pretty forward about things like this.

  23. RhondaL

    Yup. I admit that I was hesitant to take DARKLY DREAMING DEXTER to the hospital outpatient lab waiting room where I would join people waiting to get blood drawn.

  24. Catherine Shipton

    I have at the least a book a day habit…I’m armed with a book where ever I go. In my public reading time the cover isn’t obvious as it’s flat down on the table next to my latte. Me being completely engrossed in what I’m reading seems to be a cue by random strangers and friends to see why I’m completely engrossed. I’ve met some interesting book fiends reading out and about.


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