Book jackets on or off?
In one of the many party scenes in Kingsley Amis's second novel, That Certain Feeling (1955), John, a snobbish working-class librarian, satirically inspects the decor of his hostess's living room. He sees, "right under my nose, the latest Graham Greene and Angela Thirkell lying, still in their jackets, on a copy of Vogue." Keeping the book jackets on is apparently Edie's way of showing off. What I want to know is, Which Angela Thirkell is it?
Without Kingsley Amis's cynicism and today's exchanges on social media, I would not know that keeping book jackets on or off signifies high or low culture. And which is it anyway? Periodically, a journalist, blogger, or online pundit zealously pontificates on this subject. Dan Weaver, owner of The Book Hound in Amsterdam, New York, explains at Biblio.com that used books are worthless to booksellers without the book jacket, unless the book is very rare.
A dust jacket serves several important functions, but it is more than just functional. It is an integral part of the book. A book without its dust jacket is incomplete. Yes, you can still read it and enjoy it, but you do not hold in your hand the final result of the artistic process that culminated in the book.
I am personally a fan of book jackets; I love the vibrant colors and designs. I also enjoy watching trends in book covers. The title with no art whatsoever on the cover seems to be fashionable again (Lisa Taddeo's Three Women, Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror). I seldom remove a book jacket unless I am reading a Library of America volume. These well-made books have such high-quality paper that they are a pleasure to handle. I put the cover back when I'm done.
Of course there are many naysayers who feel inconvenienced by the gaudy covers. They complain that book jackets have no function. They find the cover art tacky and dislike the feeling of the slippery paper. The first thing they do is rip off the jacket and throw it away. Chris Higgins at Mental Floss writes,"practically speaking, I can't stand them -- too easy to tear, lose, or crumple!"
The Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Jhumpa Lahiri, has a more philosophical bent. In her gracefully-written book, The Clothing of Books, she says that book jackets are distracting. The daughter of a librarian, she grew up reading "naked books"; the library books did not have jackets, because they were difficult to keep intact. And Lahiri loved encountering books without extraneous information about the author.
I have read hundreds of books, almost all the literature of my schooling, without a summary blurb on the flap, without an author photograph. They had an anonymous quality, secretive. They gave nothing away in advance. To understand them, you had to read them. The authors I loved at the time were embodied only by their words. The naked cover doesn’t interfere. My first reading happened outside of time, ignorant of the market, of current events. The part of me that regards book jackets with suspicion seeks to rediscover that experience. When I purchase a book today, I acquire a range of other things: a picture of the author, biographical information, reviews. All of this complicates matters. It causes confusion. It distracts me. I hate reading the comments on the cover; it is to them that we owe one of the most repugnant words in the English language: blurb. Personally, I think it deplorable to place the words and opinions of others on the book jacket. I want the first words read by the reader of my book to be written by me.
The Clothing of Books makes me nostalgic for my own experience at university libraries. The university libraries still shelve " naked books," and perhaps that accounts for a quieter, more focused experience. At home, my book jackets do seem to scream at times, "Read me!" "No, read me!" So many colors and designs competing for my attention.
Yet I cannot imagine throwing out the book jackets. For me, it is a key part of the experience of choosing the book. I hate to admit this, but I always begin with the author's bio, and I even like the blurbs. Blurbs may not tell the whole truth, but they make for fascinating reading.