Contra Dust-Jackets
A Fetish of Protectionism

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson
November 2008

Dust-jackets stand guard

What is it that dust-jackets are designed to protect? Well, let's start from the inwardness of a book and work out. What does the book exist for, its purpose? It exists to contain words. We can throw in illustrations, but the principle is the same, and applies well enough even when books contain fold-out maps or children's pop-up cut-outs or included discs with speech or music or video. Meaning of various sorts is conveyed by words from author to reader.

But isn't this obvious? No, because books often seem to find odd uses as paperweights, drink coasters, objects of art, advertisements, decorations, objects of envy, and so on. We may come back to these at another time.

So, words. For simplicity, we'll focus on a modern hardcover book. Working from the inside out, what do we see?

  1. inked words on paper sheets
  2. margins surrounding the inked words
  3. boards protecting front and back of the paper sheets
  4. a binding that fastens and secures the boards
  5. a dust-jacket to protect the binding and boards
  6. a folded sheet of plastic to protect the dust-jacket

Cats hand book-press, 1902 (small) Do we see anything odd about this progression? For it is actually a regression; as we proceed outward, we get farther from our core, the readably printed words on paper. Our layers of protection become less and less relevant to the actual words in the book. At a certain remove we ought to label this a fetish, as when lingerie becomes more enticing than the curves it encases.

The pages' margins protect the inked words from tears and abrasions at the edge of the sheets. The boards and bindings protect the sheets as a whole. This is reasonable, and for centuries this sufficed. So far, so good.

When dust-jackets began coming into favor, they were just that: something to keep the dust of storage and transport off of the books' actual covers, and keep bookstore browsers' hands at one remove from these bindings and boards so the books are not too shopworn before being sold. The earliest jackets were quite plain and unadorned paper by modern standards, or else see-through glassine.

Handling a book is not made easier by wrapping it in a loose paper jacket; rather, the opposite. The flaps do not work too well as bookmarks, often being too thin for thicker books, or too springy to stay in place. (Sewn-in narrow ribbons are best.)

Note that dust-jackets did not, and do not, protect the actual pages where the words are.

Doubtless I should have saved the dust-jacket that came with the first-edition review copy of Frank Herbert's Dune that the publisher Chilton sent me. It had a nice Schoenherr illustration, although that is copied from an Analog cover from the novel's prior magazine serialization: a larger version. But even if the jacket had been in place, it wouldn't have protected Dune materially from my later spilling orange juice on it. I was rereading the novel, and it lay open on the breakfast table.

Does a fetishistic devotion to dust-jacketry save some books, sometimes, from the drinks of careless guests and the dustings of passing tornadoes? Surely. But I reckon that a lot of these book collectors are more often upset by damage to a dust-jacket — to its value — than to its enwrapped book.

Dust-jacket artwork, or attractive books?

Okay, but what about the artwork, the sometimes-attractive and occasionally-lovely picture on the front of the dust-jacket, or even a wrap-around landscape?

Sure, these may be very nice. But wouldn't you rather have that really nice picture bound inside the book as a frontispiece? Bound-in, the artwork will stay with the book as long as the binding and boards remain intact, benefitting from the same protection that the covers give the textual pages.

Whlle attractively-bound books still are published (hidden within their jackets), decorated boards and bindings have become rare except from speciality publishers. I suppose the pressure to increasingly fancify books' dust-jackets came from their having to compete for attention with colorful magazine covers, and later with colorful paperback covers.

As a teenager I acquired a used Science Fiction Book Club edition of Hal Clement's classic novel Mission of Gravity. These book-club editions are cheap and simply made, though sturdy enough; Doubleday sold them at a dollar each for years. The binding of this edition of Mission of Gravity is bright yellow, which is fairly unusual. The cover illustration is a fair representation of the highly ellipsoid heavy-gravity planet Mesklin, which as a subject for illustration is unique. As the dust-jacket began to show signs of tearing, I cut out the front panel and pasted it into the book as a frontispiece. Much better: a book is far tougher than its jacket, and the cover picture is thus preserved.

I commend this procedure for books with attractive covers. Use an inert paste, or tape around the edges (use a library-quality book tape), or use a plastic sleeve, as appropriate. Or just file the nice picture or author's profile in a folder, if you want to keep it.

Long rows of books' bindings make for more attractive bookshelves than do long rows of strips of glossy paper.

The Dust-Jacketeers' Preservation Society

"Enough! Or too much!" as William Blake says (in another context). So, to end on a lighter note:

Of course we ideally should treasure and not discard books' dust-jackets. After all, many dedicated jacketeers buy books solely to obtain the jackets. But we needn't keep jackets out on open bookshelves: they might get dust on them. For those who can't afford a compartmented helium-filled vault, there's a simpler solution. I wrap each new jacket, one at a time, around the big ball of older dust-jackets and lacquer them securely. That way they're preserved and safe. I got the idea from my stamp-collection ball.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson


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