Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Book jackets

An interesting article I bookmarked some time ago, but never had time to properly read. That's what spring break is for.

Michael Dirda reviews a book entitled Book-Jackets: Their History, Forms, and Use, by G. Thomas Tanselle, and discusses some of the history of book jackets. Apparently early "slipcovers" date back to the 1820s, though it wasn't until the 1870s that they were common artifacts. It seems that the graphic possibilities of the dust jacket were exploited beginning in the 1910s. The original "paper wrappers" were for primarily protective purposes, but soon covers were also incorporating descriptions and endorsements.

As Dirda says, "Jackets are vexing. Should you read books with their jackets on or off? Should research libraries stop removing jackets from their open-shelf books? Should I just stop worrying about things like this and buy an e-book reader?" I tend to take the dust jacket off when I read a book, and for some jackets I remove them permanently (like Mary GrandPre's Harry Potter book covers--both for sentimental reasons and because they are such exquisite works of art). But with the aid of mylar protectors, I don't see why libraries shouldn't leave the covers on books. As Dirda mentions, there is something romantic about scholarly shelves of leather and cloth bound volumes, but simply discarding a book's jacket is not a solution. Tanselle suggests cataloging and preservation as an option for libraries who wish to display books without their jackets. Dust jackets can tell a lot about a book, and Tanselle and Dirda both regret the fact that so few early jackets have survived. Many probably don't truly consider book jackets as an important part of the book itself, but for their artistic merit, as well as for the contextual and historical value they can contribute, they certainly deserve the attention Tanselle gives them in his book.

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