On Fiction: Judging a Book by Its Cover

April 7, 2023 at 8:00 AM

Indeed, you should judge a book by its cover, literally. As we continue our series on fiction books, we must consider a book’s cover in the context of Christian discernment.

This article, I want to offer some practical suggestions for discerning books and maybe give you a head-start towards reading some good, edifying works. Some of these tips you can employ before you even start a book, which may curb potential dangers before you are exposed to them, or may whet your appetite all the more for a delicious book.


Telling Titles

Check out the title. Some books have titles that are so preposterous they are just not worth reading. Any fiction book with a curse word in its title, for example, is just not a good idea to read. If the author is so bold as to put that in his title, can you imagine what may occupy those pages? Titles may be rather paranormal. Imagine a book titled, Big Joe Battles Ghosts, Zombies, and Creepy Monsters? I’m not aware of any book by this title, but if it existed, I sure would not be reading it! Titles may be explicit or suggestive of themes. Titles may give credence to modern ungodly ideologies. Titles can tell a whole lot – so take note of the title!


Audacious Authors

The cover usually tells you who wrote the book as well. Knowing the author can shed all sorts of light on a book. Everyone has a worldview, and your worldview will necessarily be shown in what you write. Thus, by knowing an author and his/her worldview, you can get a head-start as to what you’ll find in the book. As we’ve previously discussed, this doesn’t mean you only read books by Christian authors. It just means you know where an author is coming from (and in some cases, you might stay away from certain authors). One author, for example, that requires some discernment is Louisa May Alcott. You probably know her as the author of Little Women. Though the book is beloved, perhaps it requires a second thought in light of its author. Alcott, though living in the 1800s, was a feminist and a transcendentalist.[1] Her books subtly advocate that women ought not to be confined to housekeeping duties (i.e., the biblical notion of working at home) and that salvation from sin (if sin is even rightly acknowledged) can come, largely, through doing good works and good deeds in our own strength. While this does not mean we use our copies of Little Women as kindling, it does mean we read it with a critical and discerning eye. We should understand what beliefs undergird what she writes and not mindlessly accepting Alcott’s suggestions but questioning everything she proposes.


Picky about Pictures

The cover also usually has some sort of picture on it (unless it’s an older book with a beautiful hard cover). It should go without saying, but a book with any sort of inappropriate picture on the front is not worth reading. If the front cover is suggestive in some way, how much more do you think the content of the book will be so? Sometimes, there are books that are fine to read that have strange covers. Personally, I’ve found this to be the case with older works. Modern editions of Greco-Roman stories or even more recent books like Frankenstein can have rather inappropriate covers on them. The trick here is just picking a different cover. It’s fine to read Homer’s The Iliad. Homer was not a God-fearer, but he did write an epic poem, a true Western classic, with some good themes.[2] It’s also very easy to find a copy of The Iliad with an appropriate cover, so don’t settle for something ungodly.


The Back of the Book

Before you buy a book you don’t know much about, always read the write-up on the back. Publishers most helpfully provide a little summary of the book on the back cover. Use it! You might get a spoiler every now and again, but you also might save yourself some serious headache. As with the title and the picture, if there is ungodly language, explicit content, or anything on the back write up which makes you uncomfortable, then you don’t need to buy the book. You’d be better off putting it down and searching for another book. Maybe, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the write up, however, you notice it is suggesting some themes that you’d rather not see unpacked in a story. Well, there’s reason enough to find a different book. Remember, there are all sorts of good books out there. There are also all sorts of bad books out there. Don’t settle for a bad book when you can spend your time reading a truly good and edifying one.


Some Worthwhile Books

To close for now, I want to offer a list of some really good fiction books that can get you started in the world of edifying fiction. Each of these books has either Christian themes or is filled with insightful, though secular, observations. I am sure each will be edifying in some way or another. I have included the name, author, and genre of a few noteworthy books:


20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Jules Verne. Science fiction.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens. Novella.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens. Historical fiction.

Animal Farm, George Orwell. Fable.

Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi. Children’s fable.

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe. Adventure.

The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis. Children’s fantasy.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien. Fantasy.

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers. Mystery.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan. Allegory.


[1] What is this monstrous word? The beliefs of transcendentalism are as monstrous as its name! One article helpfully summarizes, “Transcendentalists believed that in order to learn what is right, a person should rely on reason. Transcendentalism teaches that the doctrines and organized churches of orthodox Christianity interfere with the personal relationship between a person and God, and that we should reject the authority of Christianity and gain knowledge of God through reason.” See Sally Walker, “A Biblical Critique of the Works of Louisa May Alcott,” Chalcedon, August 1, 1999. Accessed April 4, 2023. https://chalcedon.edu/magazine/a-biblical-critique-of-the-works-of-louisa-may-alcott


[2] Though please note that The Iliad does have some violent, more explicit, and pagan content, so it is not recommended for everyone.