Judging books by their covers… or just discarding them

In the University Library, only a small number of books remain as paperbacks—if the book is destined to be borrowable, it is protected in some way: either with a clear plastic cover, or with a hard ‘case binding’. These allow us to protect our books for the period of time that we hope to keep them in circulation at the UL. What this means is that it can be quite difficult to recognise a book by its cover—we often either discard or cover up the dust jacket, which is likely to be the more colourful and well-designed aspect of the book.

In the French language, we buy a good number of novels published by Grasset and Gallimard, both of which have a distinctive and consistent cover design: The Gallimard NRF design has been consistent for decades (a buff colour, with the author, title, the word ‘roman’, the nrf device, and the name Gallimard, all inside of a double red, and single black box), while the Grasset covers are all of a yellow colour, with green and red writing. Nothing terribly exciting or ground-breaking here, in terms of graphic design.

Two novels published by Grasset, with the Library-applied plastic covering. Big Daddy retains its illustrated dust jacket.

Two novels published by Grasset, with the Library-applied plastic covering. Big Daddy (C204.d.1269) retains its illustrated dust jacket, while that of La langue des oiseaux (C204.d.1268) has been discarded (not very interesting original here).

However, were these books to be in a bookshop, rather than the Library, these relatively boring covers would have a dust jacket on top, bearing no relation to the corporate style the publisher imposes on the cover—rather, they’re often lavishly or brightly illustrated with photographs or artwork. Because of the mechanics of the plastic covering that we usually put on these types of books, we usually discard these dust jackets.

In a way, though, these dust jackets form a part of the book—not necessarily the novel contained within, as authors often have no say over the appearance of their books—but the book as an object, which may have something to say about what the publisher believes will help sell the book, and how it has been marketed. In addition to their possible value as a part of literary history, these covers are often works of art in their own right—see, for instance, the dust jackets of English-language translations of Albert Camus, which are bold and striking illustrations, very much period pieces of the 1950s. It would have been a shame to have discarded these dust jackets—as we probably would have done now, in the more modern and efficient library.

When dealing with books, we can just spare the amount of time with a book in order to determine where in the Library it should sit (a process described by Bettina here). Indeed, when we receive a book, we often need to resist (or we give in to!) the urge to judge a book by its cover. It’s quick and efficient, though not always accurate.

While we often get astonishingly beautiful covers, we equally frequently get terrible designs– although not often as bad as they could be

Josh Hutchinson

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