01 September 2004

On Book Jackets

by Traci Glass

Book jacket, book cover, dust jacket, dust cover.

They are all words that describe one pretty innocuous thing: the thing that covers the hard cardboard cover of a book. The book jacket was developed for practical purposes only: to protect books from dust, insects and other harmful entities. However, as years progressed, the book jacket has become a separate part of the book itself and the reading experience. The book jacket has morphed into not only an addendum used to help sell the book, but also into a piece of art in and of itself. Classic books such as Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man , Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and newer titles such as Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park and Chuck Palahniuk's Lullaby . There's even a celebrity book jacket designer in our midst; it's hard to miss Chip Kidd and his eclectic and eye catching designs gracing the shelves of bookstores and libraries across the country and the world. The book jacket has come a long way since its early inception as a protector of books; it has become the first step in the reading experience.

Although book covers have been decorated for many years, it wasn't until the 1800s that book jackets came into existence. �Book jackets first appeared in England in the nineteenth century, in a culture that was still discovering the rules of consumerism. Their early evolution came about in fits and starts, constrained by cultural inhibitions that are now difficult to understand. When decoration was present on the outside of the book, it took the form of either blocking onto binding cloth, or pasting printed paper sheets onto the front and back boards� (Powers 6). Up until the advent of book jackets at this time, the decorated covers of books were quite popular and even produced celebrities of book cover design. Aubrey Beardsley and Sarah Wyman Whitman were popular book cover designers of the 1800s. Pasted paper designs started appearing on books as early as the 1830s which soon gave way to two colored textured designs and gold stamping in the 1840s and 1850s. As the years progressed, the use of text and colored ink was simplified and became commonplace on book covers around the world. �The transformation of book design owed much to the Arts and Crafts movement, which revered the book as an object both functional and aesthetic, a part of everyday life yet worthy of care and adornment. William Morris had turned to typography in the 1890s, late in his career. Reacting against the harsh, sparkling pages of spiky type made possible by nineteenth-century printing and paper technologies, Morris reclaimed the weighty, dull-edged letters of early Renaissance typography� (Lupton 364).

As the 20 th century rolled around, the book jacket changed. �Only after 1900 did book jackets begin to become commonplace, and even then, the great majority consisted simply of a repetition of the blocking from the binding on a sheet of paper� (Powers 7). In the 1900s America saw a change in the financial demographic of the population at large. A middle class suddenly emerged as factories and machinery caused the industrial revolution to blossom in cities across the country. Art for this middle class flooded the market due to the fact that although their money was limited their numbers were staggering. Artists such as R. Atkinson Fox and companies such as Napco rushed to introduce art that people in this new middle class could afford to buy. Books and their jacket designs soon became a part of this new art explosion in the middle class society. As book jackets and cover designs became more complicated and ornate, they were seen as pieces of art, pieces of art which middle class Americans could afford to buy and display in their homes. Also, paperback novels or pulp novels, flooded the market that provided inexpensive ways for people to read. Their covers often contained highly decorative and provocative images; these books became legends in their own way.

As time progressed, America moved out of the Great Depression and into the style movement of the 1950s and 1960s. During this time, pulp novels rose to high popularity and the Beat generation introduced the world to their philosophy through books. Through it all, the book jacket and cover continued to change with the times, reflecting the fascination with alternative lifestyles and deviant behaviors. �Book-cover design encompassed an extraordinarily wide range of styles and techniques, and in a culture that was still dominated by the printed image and word, there was a steep increase both in quantity and quality of book-cover design� (Powers 41). Designers such as Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig experimented with lettering, photomontage, pencil drawings and illustrations to change the look of book jackets once again. This was the time of Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man cover designed by Edward McKnight Kauffer and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita . The first with a significant illustration on the cover, the other plain in the style of pornographic novels of the day. (Powers 62)

It was during this time that pulp novels finally came into their own in the literary scene of America . With their content came beautiful and often provocative and disturbing cover images designed to encourage the reader to throw down a quarter and become enveloped in stories of the deviant lifestyles of juvenile delinquents and dime store detectives. The pulp novels were highly colorful and full of interesting situations. On the cover of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd , a man is being stabbed in the back; to illustrate the dangers of drug use a picture of a man who hung himself is used to illustrate the cover of The Pusher . Pulp covers had a smoky feel and women were pictured in various states of undress in many examples. Pulp publishers even used specific colors as codes to the readers. �Red Arrow followed the lead of Kurt Enoch's Albatross and Allen Lane 's Penguin Books, color-coding its covers for easy identification by readers. Red covers meant mystery and crime fiction, green meant travel and adventure, and blue meant general fiction� (Lupoff 227). The cover art of pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s often depicted the underbelly of society that traditional book jackets rarely touched on. In that way they are an art form in and of themselves.

Book jackets are an important part of a book. According to a study by Publishers Weekly , �75% of the 300 booksellers surveyed (half from independents and half from chains) said that, of all the elements of the book itself, the look and design of the cover was the most important. The booksellers also thought that the plot summaries on the flaps and back cover were important, though somewhat less so� (Rawlinson 8). One person who has made a name for himself in the world of book jacket design is Chip Kidd. He has designed books for Elmore Leonard, David Sedaris, Michael Crichton and Cormac McCarthy as well as the new Peanuts anthologies that have been released since the death of Charles M. Schultz. Chip Kidd is �the associate art director of jackets and special projects at Knopf� and is known for his unusual style and design. (Williams 142) He worked under Carol Carlson at Alfred A. Knopf in the beginning of his career. �Carson and her core staff of gifted younger designers � Chip Kidd, Barbara de Wilde, and Archie Ferguson � transformed bookstore shelves across the country� (Lupton 363). In terms of Elmore Leonard's books, Kidd says �With all due respect to whomever worked on them before, I never thought Leonard's books were given a fair chance because of the covers. I never saw one that made me want to pick it up� (Bing 18). By interjecting a new found excitement into the book jacket industry, Chip Kidd is introducing a whole new audience to the art of book jackets � he's making the jacket as intriguing as the book itself. �His often cheeky and urbane jacket art, more MTV than mass market�� would be prone to attract younger readers (Bing 18). Chip Kidd is bringing a new face and a changing facade to book jackets with the change of the century. As he said in a recent interview with the Onion A.V. Club, ��a good book cover makes you want to pick it up. End of story� (Phipps 1).

Over the centuries, book jackets have changed with the times, Modernism to Postmodernism, drawings and illustrations to photographs and digital mastery. Legends like Chip Kidd, Paula Scher, Sarah Wyman Whitman and Alvin Lustig have all made their marks on book jackets through the years. The truth is that book jackets allow the reader to use not only their mental skills, but their visual skills, as well, when choosing reading materials. A book jacket can make someone want to pick up the book or lay it down depending on what it portrays on the cover. Hopefully, book jacket art and designs will continue to mirror the society in which they reside as well as encourage readers to try a new book or a new author. Book jackets aren't an entity unto themselves, they are the first step in the journey of reading.

Bibliography and Suggested Readings

  • Bing, Jonathan. �Elmore Kidds Around.� Publishers Weekly 245 (February 23, 1998): 18-19.
  • Feldman, Beth. �Covers That Catch the Eye.� Publishers Weekly 238 (November 1, 1991): 46-48.
  • Harnum, Bill. �Whose Cover Is It Anyway?� Journal of Scholarly Publishing 30, no. 3 (April 1999): 146-152.
  • Lupoff, Richard A. The Great American Paperback . Portland , Oregon : Collectors Press, 2001.
  • Lupton, Ellen. � Colophon : Women Graphic Designers.� In Women Designers in the USA 1900-2000 , edited by Pat Kirkham, 362-381. New York : Yale University Press, 2000.
  • Matthews, Jack. �And Another Thing�: Dust Jackets and the Art of Memory.� Logos 14, no. 3 (2003): 155-158.
  • McQuiston, Liz. Women in Design: A Contemporary View . New York : Rizzoli, 1988.
  • Phipps, Keith. �An Onion A.V. Club Interview with Chip Kidd.� The Onion A.V. Club .
  • Powers, Alan. Front Cover: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design . London : Octopus Publishing, 2001.
  • Reese, Teresa. The Best in Covers & Posters 9 . Rockville , Maryland : RC Publications, Inc., 1991.
  • Pedersen, Martin. �To Tie In or Not to Tie In.� Publishers Weekly 240 (July 26, 1993): 24-25.
  • Rawlinson, Nora. �Why Not Judge a Book by Its Cover?� Publishers Weekly 247, no. 6 (February 7, 2000): 8.
  • Reid, Calvin. �Chip Kidd: Designer-Man Wields Pen!� Publishers Weekly 248, no. 44 (October 29, 2001): 31.
  • �Seeing Double, Selling Well.� Publishers Weekly Supplement 245 (June 1998 supp): S21-S22.
  • Stevenson, Nanette. �Hipper, Brighter and Bolder.� Publishers Weekly 244 (February 17, 1997): 139-141.
  • Sullivan, Ed. �Judging Books by Their Covers, Part II: Hardcover vs. Paperback.� Voice of Youth Advocates 23, no. 4 (October 2000): 244-248.
  • Sullivan, Edward T. �Judging BOOKS by their COVERS: A Cover Art Experiment.� Voice of Youth Advocates 21, no. 3 (August 1998): 180-182.
  • Williams, Wilda. �Judging This Author by His Covers.� Library Journal 126, no. 16 (October 1, 2001): 142-143.

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