What did the poor dust jacket ever do to deserve such scorn?
This morning, literary critic Michelle Dean penned an article for Flavorwire assailing the purpose and usefulness of dust jackets, those glossy outer shells of hardcover books. Not one to judge a book by its cover, apparently, Dean confesses, "Every hardcover that comes into my possession is desecrated, almost immediately, insofar as I automatically remove the dust jacket and often transport it directly to the trash."
Dean argues that her animosity towards the jacket is "just, reasonable, and true," and points to four major reasons why dust jackets are terrible (the Dean's List, as we will call it; see below). And she wasn't the only one angry at dust jackets' continued existence in this age of the e-book. "Am with Michelle. Stupid things they be," tweets author Vincent Holland-Keen. Others voiced the same sentiment:
But Dean and the anti-dust jacket forces could not be more misguided in their criticism. Ending the use of dust jackets would be a massive mistake for an industry that has made all too many mistakes in the recent past.
First of all, half of Dean's argument relies on the notion that the name "dust jacket" ought to be taken literally:
1. Dust jackets don’t actually repel dust. ...
2. Dust jackets are no easier or harder to clean than fabric hardcovers.
True, the dust jacket has nothing to do with its name. Which, well, okay. But so what? Dust jackets clearly don't actually protect a book from dust, and a quick skim of the Wikipedia page for dust jackets shows that they never did. Moreover, plenty of words name objects without accurately describing that object's function. That doesn't make the object itself useless.
Dean also accuses dust jackets of being slippery and unnecessary; publishing companies could just make the hardcover binding colorful and put illustrations there. Dean's doesn't even mention the most practical part of the dust jacket: the inside-flap book summary and author bio, which together include far more information than a back cover alone ever could. And paperbacks with dust jacket-like flaps are just a weird hybrid that we can safely discount, much as we have turkey bacon and non-alcoholic beer.
Besides, as the blogger Jeff Wofford has noted, dust jackets do in fact protect books, if not actually from dust:
A dust jacket guards against scratches, scuffs, jelly, and other distortions unworthy of a book’s perfection. In this regard it resembles a tonsil, absorbing abuse on behalf of a larger, more important body of which it is a constituent.
Glossy, attractive and, often, brightly colored, the dust jacket reminds the reader that the book is very much a physical object, one that is to be treasured and protected. Take care of what's between these two covers, the dust jacket says, even as it tries to draw you in.
And it is also a vestige of the book's past, recalling more glorious times in the publishing industry. Look on rare-book sites like abebooks.com, and you will see how much, say, a signed dust-jacketed first edition of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms fetches (see left). To throw a dust jacket away is to potentially deprive future readers of the beauty of a book, not to mention its material worth.
The Guardian notes a slightly more pedestrian use for the dust jacket: disguising what you are actually reading with a cover for something perhaps more sophisticated or proper:
it's long been a favourite device to cloak some less respectable book in the cover of a much staider one. The diligent soul on your train purporting to be engrossed in The Primary Structures of Fabrics: An Illustrated Classification may in fact be secretly savouring the sex life of Fanny Hill.
Of course, you could do away with a dust jacket. And covers. And printed pages. You can just read on your Kindle. But where's the beauty in that?
(Photo 1: Jeff Muscato/en.Wikipedia)
(Photo 2: Elena Kharichkina/Shutterstock)
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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