This post by Colin Dwyer originally appeared on NPR on 9/27/15.
Whatever the old adage might warn, there is a bit of merit to judging a book by its cover — if only in one respect. Consider the blurb, one of the most pervasive, longest-running — and, at times, controversial — tools in the publishing industry.
For such a curious word, the term “blurb” has amassed a number of meanings in the decades since it worked its way into our vocabulary, but lately it has referred to just one thing: a bylined endorsement from a fellow writer — or celebrity — that sings the praises of a book’s author right on the cover of their book.
They’re claims couched in quote marks, homes for words you might never hear otherwise — like compelling, or luminous, or unputdownable. Heck, at least three books have reportedly inspired celebrated memoirist Frank McCourt to say “you’ll claw yourself with pleasure.”
Nearly as long as they’ve been around, they’ve been treated by a vocal few with suspicion, occasionally even outright snark and scorn. Author Jennifer Weiner, for instance, sees some value in them, but suggests they’ve been getting over the top; scholar Camille Paglia, not one to mince words, called them “absolutely appalling” in a 1991 speech.