Something Good #42: Jackets Required
This month, while I’m off shooting a feature, friends and guests have been filling in here at Something Good. For this week’s edition, I received an intriguing proposition from Sebastian Stockman, professor in the English department of Northeastern University and author of the newsletter A Saturday Letter. He proposed to write a rebuttal to “No Jackets Required,” my polemic against dust jackets on hardcover books. I could not resist the opportunity to be roasted on my own home turf, so please join me in welcoming Professor Stockman to the newsletter.
He proceeded to describe his book-buying habit and his predilection for hardcovers. So far, so humdrum: I have the same vice.
But then he delivered the promised shock: As you know if you’ve been reading this newsletter for any time at all, Mark hates dust jackets. Hates them! From a specious claim about the difficulty of holding a jacketed book to a semi-legitimate gripe about their sometime ugliness, he argued forcefully for discarding (or at least collecting in a box in your basement) hardcover dust jackets. Shocked? I was appalled.
In the intervening months I have attempted to channel my sputtering incomprehension into attempts to document the holes in Mark’s extremely bad take1.
And so: Friends, readers, Canadians, lend me your eyes. I come not to praise #nojacketsrequired, but to bury it.
First, let me say, Mark is in good company — or company, anyway. Maxwell Perkins, fabled editor of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, treated a book’s dust jacket like a grocery store circular, discarding it immediately. Perkins was a word guy, and a publishing insider, he may have even passed on the book in question in manuscript. He had no time for the jacket’s advertising come-on.
I should be in this camp with Mark and Perkins (and maybe some of you). I am also a word guy (Word Guys!) with a rudimentary-at-best grasp of graphic design. I’m not exactly colour-blind, but I have been known to mix and match navy-blue and black socks.
So, in theory, this lineup on the table at my local indie, Porter Square Books:
should be just as appealing as this one:
…but it’s not.
Mark’s line, back in SG #11, was that “[d]ust jackets are the book equivalent of plastic sofa covers. A lifetime of ugliness in exchange for minimal protection from the elements.” This good line misreads their purpose.
The dust jacket is an advertisement, yes, but one that aspires—often—to art. It’s also a fascinating rhetorical artifact. In addition to pleasing, or at least catching, the eye, a good jacket conveys all kinds of information in an instant: author, title, genre, mood. Sometimes you might get a sense of plot or thesis. You can look on the back to see who the author’s frien—I mean, blurbers, are.
The jacket — and here I quote Peter Mendelsund and David J. Alworth’s The Look of the Book: Jackets, covers and Art at the Edges of Literature, a lavishly-produced coffee-table volume by a book designer (Mendelsund) and literary theorist (Alworth), which, even more parenthetically, I found on the remainder table at the aforementioned Porter Square Books—is “a spatial not a temporal art.” Contrary to the art it encloses, the jacket delivers its message all at once.
Consider some cases:
The dust jacket for my copy of a book I think everyone should read, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, delivers. The sans serif typography tips us off: this is a treatise. The surprising and beautiful bursts of colour from the flowers are an oblique comment on the book’s content. They’re not roses, but we’re being invited to stop and smell them. That’s one way to “resist the attention economy:” let beauty crowd out information, the way the flowers’ petals are beginning to crowd out the cover text.
(On the other hand, I suppose we could argue the book’s jacketless cover is practicing what it preaches: nothing.)
In a similar vein, I suppose, we could argue that an all-black cover is always appropriate for Don DeLillo. But what a creepy bit of literary history we would lose. Underworld was published the year I graduated high school (1997) four years before…well, you know.
Andre Kertesz’s 1973 photograph of the cloud-shrouded Twin Towers with an airborne figure (a bird) off to the side is already a mood. But slapped on the big book from the novelist known for his penchant for eerily predictive conspiracy plots and moods of vague foreboding, and knowing what we know now? It’s almost like there’s someone out there (up there?) pulling the strings.
As an honest broker, I have to admit: the naked cover of Beloved is pretty badass. It casts just the right tone of somber and spectral. And (here it comes) to be sure, there have been some very cool entries in the #nojacketsrequired series.
Isn’t the quiet image of that spooky angel headstone so much more arresting after the large and loud BIG BOOK LOOK of the dust jacket? In fact, Mark, doesn’t the delight of an inscription, illustration, etching or bold color of a bare hardback book in some ways depend on the jacket?
I don’t know why I got all Perry Mason there.
I got that term, the Big Book Look, from Mendelsund and Alworth. It’s the series of subtle and not-so-subtle cues designers use on a house’s major titles for the season. The author’s name and the title have to be in big, bold typefaces. There can be illustration, but it shouldn’t get in the way. Here’s one of the examples they use to illustrate the Big Book Look.
Dust jackets can be few and far between at used bookstores, but if they’re intact they can sometimes tell a story about the book — or at least the publisher’s plans for it, as in this 1970 John Hersey joint from Knopf:
The unadorned cover certainly has its merits, but I would have skipped right past it in the dollar rack at the Brattle Book Shop in downtown Boston, assuming it was John Hodgman’s collegiate day planner.
But the all-text Big Book Look told me that Knopf had big plans for this book I’d never heard of by the author of Hiroshima. It was, we’re told, “an urgent letter to those no longer in college in an attempt to help us rediscover our sons and daughters — and ourselves—before it is too late in the matter.” Using his contact with the young people who almost burned Yale down on Mayday 1970, Hersey offers “insights into their complex wants and ways.” Anyway, from the 70 pages or so I’ve read, this book earned its obscurity. It’s an earnest liberal sermon that surely satisfied no one. Imagine if Jonathan Chait could write.
Covers are advertisements. They’re rhetorical devices aimed at delivering some information about the text inside—but not too much. I’ll end today with what is probably the only book I’ve purchased just for its cover. It’s one I sometimes use in my classes to talk about the ways rhetorical packaging shapes our impressions. First, I ask students, what is this book about? Would you buy it?
Then I take the cover off and ask the same questions:
What gives? Those imps at Harvard Bookstore explain:
Isn’t this wild? I love that they did it, and I love that I came across it.Listen, I think it’s fine to take the covers off while you read! If I ever get around to reading Young Miles, I’ll probably put the Harvard cover somewhere safe. And if you prefer unadorned books on your shelves, well, at least I don’t have to see them (except in Something Good).
But for goodness’ sake, don’t throw them out! To discard a book jacket is to discard an essential piece of a book’s history.
Thank you for my time.
— Sebastian Stockman
Every Wednesday I will send you Something Good. Thank you Sebastian Stockman for writing this week’s issue, and for indirectly alerting me to the very interesting literary career of John Hersey.
If you enjoyed this week’s instalment, please consider subscribing to Sebastian’s newsletter and/or mine.
I feel compelled to offer a disclaimer that this is all in good fun, aesthetic preferences vary, but Mark is still wrong.