Literary Hub

The Biggest Mystery of My Book is Its Cover

mystery text

As soon as I saw the cover art, I knew I was in luck: my publisher had come up with a gorgeous, smart design for the book jacket of the novel I’d spent years writing.

There was just one problem with it… a problem that seemed to worry no one but me.

My novel, The Weight of Ink, opens with the discovery of documents inside the stairwell of a 17th-century London house. Most of the documents are signed by an obscure rabbi—but as historians examine the fragile documents, it emerges that some of the letters aren’t what they seem—in fact they’re authored by someone other than the rabbi, and for subversive purposes. The novel takes off from there, the struggle of the contemporary historians to find the truth interweaving with the story of the 17th-century woman who actually wrote the documents.

Working from these themes, the design department created a wonderful image: the blue-black ink of the book’s title superimposed on a background of faded, half-illegible writing. If you look closely, you can see the old manuscript in the background showing through the translucent letters of the book’s title—words bleeding through words, history washing up into the present day.

I had just one question. What was that background text over which the designer had superimposed my title? It wasn’t in English. I thought I could make out an umlaut—but none of the languages spoken by the book’s characters contain umlauts.

I told my publisher I loved the design—but please, could we check the origin of that background text before going to press, just to make sure it wasn’t something that would embarrass us? You know—some screed against Quakers or Jews…? An invitation to an Inquisition BBQ…?

I was promised an answer. But weeks passed, and it didn’t arrive.

*

I pause here to accept karmic comeuppance: in my novel, I had far too much fun mocking the culture clash between my historian characters (who care primarily about facts, and chafe at the delays imposed by conservators meticulously preparing documents for use) and my document-conservator characters (who care primarily about artifacts and images, and are outraged when historians damage centuries-old manuscripts by Scotch-taping them). Now I was the one impatient to understand a story, cooling my heels while the design people focused on the cover’s visual elements.

But as time went on, and no one else seemed particularly alarmed by what I considered practically a book-cover emergency, I realized that I had a personal reason for feeling so flummoxed—and that it stemmed from my own history around foreign languages, and my sense of all that was lost when storytelling stopped at the language barrier.

Growing up around my mother’s Holocaust-refugee family, I was accustomed to hearing people switch easily between languages, their stories and sudden bouts of laughter incomprehensible yet warming. As a small child I assumed that an accent was something you acquired as you got older. It was only a matter of time, I reasoned, before I’d develop my own.

My grandfather was a dignified man who spoke 12 languages; he never quite forgave his American grandchildren for our failure to be fluent in Greek and Latin. To this day I remember his interrogations.

“Do you know Greek?”

“No.”

“Do you know Latin?”

“No.”

He’d loft his eyebrows, resigned. “You know nothing.”

When the day came that I was old enough to understand that I already had an accent—and that it was American—I began responding to my grandfather by pointing out all the ways in which being American-educated wasn’t so bad. My education, I insisted, was more modern and open-minded and not necessarily worse than the old-school European kind. And I was learning foreign languages—two of them. Just not… twelve.

My reasoning seemed to amuse him (at least I was engaging him in an argument, which was his favorite pastime; the American grandchildren weren’t a total loss, then). But I didn’t convince him.

Nor, to be honest, did I fully convince myself.

So when text in a language no one recognized was put on my book cover, I thought: my grandfather is turning over in his grave.

And when, at last my long-awaited answer arrived, it wasn’t much help.

Here was the photo credit for the background text, which the design department had found in an image bank: One page of old antique manuscript in Latin language. Brown ink on XVII-century paper.

Oh. Something in Latin.

And now I knew Grandpa was going to have his revenge… because there was no way I could let this go.

As a child I’d always been awed by the history and mystery behind my relatives’ incomprehensible conversation; as an adult, I realize, I’ve unconsciously dedicated much of my writing to pursuing forgotten stories and trying to rehabilitate them. That’s what motivated me to write my novel in the first place—the idea that history could be hidden or misplaced and later retrieved; the idea that words on paper could form a trail to lead us back to what we need to remember.

There was no way, in other words, that I could take a “hey, close enough” approach to language, or just let whatever history was in that text be flung wherever it might fall.

A friend at Boston College connected me to a Latin tutor, and I promptly sent her the material. Can you help solve this mystery?

Within an hour, she texted back: This isn’t Latin. I’m sending to my father, who is fluent in German.

An hour later, a message from the father: This isn’t German. The language on my book cover, he suggested, might be some form of archaic Scandinavian. Maybe Danish.

I consulted a Swedish friend. No, the umlauts definitely weren’t Danish. Possibly Norwegian?

A German neighbor forwarded the text to the Goethe Institute, turning up a glimmer of information: this was German, yes—but not a form of German anyone reads today.

A deep breath: German, on the cover of a book with Jewish subject matter?

But then, I was writing about 17thcentury history, when the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition was the Jews’ most dreaded enemy, rather than anyone who would have used a Germanic dialect. Onward, umlauts be damned.

A scholar at a nearby university could read the lettering, which she said combined some predecessor of ‘Sutterlein’ German cursive with something closer to ‘Fraktur’ script (which dates back to circa 1150).

She named her hourly fee, and I budgeted for two hours’ translation work, figuring that should be enough for one page of text.

It wasn’t, not even close. The handwriting was even more confounding than expected; the scholar had to translate letter by letter—and when the clock and my budget ran out I had only fragments… and the translator’s all-important assurance that there was nothing in the legible text that would be offensive.

This is what I know so far: the writer of my mystery text has a grievance—one somehow involving the Hohenzollern dynasty and Sigismund’s pawning of the Neumarkt region of Germany (1402). The writer’s ancestors, it seems, were denied their rightful territories—and therefore the writer feels justified in taking the following actions…

The rest is illegible, at least until I can budget more translation work. But according to the translator, our indignant speaker uses some form of royal “we” …and the document, based on context, might date to anywhere from 1600-1900.

My mysterious 17th-century Latin text, then, isn’t actually in Latin… and might not even be from the 17th century.

I’m determined to learn more. Yet the little I know is also perfect. Here—right on the cover of my novel—is a text that fooled us all, slipping through the centuries, anonymous and mislabeled, into the wash of the internet. Like all bygone things, it will remain mute until someone takes the time to fully decode the inked words… and, along with them, the passions that animated a stranger to set hand to paper some sunny morning, or maybe foggy afternoon, centuries ago. The designers couldn’t have come up with a better cover. Right there, visible through the lettering of my book’s title, is history hiding in plain sight—and it’s not what anyone expected it to be.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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