Dust Jackets: A Series

by Craig Stark

12 March 2012

Part I: Introduction

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By Craig Stark

The King of Wastebasketball

I'm old enough to recall a time when it was common practice to toss out dust jackets - in fact, I often practiced tossing them out myself. When I was teaching myself to write in the 1970's, I put together a pretty substantial library of reference books, and the first thing I did when I acquired a new book was to yank the dust jacket off and, as we used to put it back then, can it. It was great fun. I made a sport of it, in fact, deliberately positioning my wastebasket some yards from my desk and lofting crumpled up pages from failed stories into it as well as dust jackets. I got good at it.

If you've ever served a self-inflicted writing apprenticeship, it's likely you can appreciate how self-absorbed things can get. There you sit in solemn, weighty solitude, attempting to extract something meaningful from your mind and, more difficult yet, get it down on paper in some sort of sensible form. If you're new to the task, most of the time it just doesn't work, and for me, this in turn meant at least some brooding on why not. Extended brooding isn't much fun, so I often sought distraction to alleviate it. It was a vicious cycle: Write, brood and play a sport I invented called wastebasketball.

Speaking of self-absorption, I even wrote a short story about it - "The King of Wastebasketball." With a nod to Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, indisputably the 19th century's worst "great" writer, I offer you a 20th century submission of bad "great" writing - the first four paragraphs of my story:

"Several moments ago, in what must've been a temporary lapse of motor control, I put up a shot which students of wastebasketball refer to as a blind cripple - and missed. Big. Given a tightly compacted paper ball, I would ordinarily bang the shot home without even looking. Without even thinking about looking.

"To make matters worse, when I leaned over to pick the damn ball up, I leaned too far, felt the legs of my chair inch out from under me, frantically clutched at my desk for something to grab onto, slap-shot a mug of hot coffee off the desktop, pulverizing it against a bookcase on the far wall, then, finally, having done all this - i.e., soaked the interior three feet of the five-foot shelf of Harvard Classics and trashed my study floor in a single stroke - plunged to the hardwood."

"The philosopher Epictetus would characterize this incident as the 'merest trifle.' 'The will of nature,' he would add, 'may be learned from things upon which we are all agreed. As when our neighbor's boy has broken a cup, or the like, we are ready at once to say, these are casualties that will happen; be assured, then, that when your own cup is likewise broken, you ought to be affected just as when another's cup is broken."

"Merest trifle, my ass."

And so it went for another 24 glorious, typewritten pages.

The funny thing is, a similar incident actually happened to me - what the story based on - only it didn't involve a crumpled page from a failed story; it was a dust jacket. You see, typewriter paper is uniform; dust jackets are not. Most dust jackets are heavier, for one thing, and for another, when you crumple one up, it's more difficult to size it properly. Both of these factors can throw you off your game.

Little did I know then, as I was sprawled in a ridiculous heap on my study floor, that destiny had just spoken, whether I was ready to listen or not. At that point I was not, and for many years I continued my merciless practice. It was mostly about not wanting to mess with dust jackets, especially on reference books I consulted often, but I didn't really give them their due either, not their design or their protective quality. But when I look at my reference library now, I see a near total transformation. Oh, I see some jacketless books here and there (primarily those that weren't issued with them), but many more of my hardcovers possess them than not, and in recent years I've even replaced some of those reference books I stripped bare years ago with jacketed copies - make that jacketed and "Brodarted."

When did it happen? Gradually, I guess. But what's clear now is that tossing out dust jackets was clearly not "The will of nature," and I've spent the past 15 or 20 years redeeming my sins - I should say, at a much accelerated rate in more recent years because I started to sell books.

Those of us who sell 20th century books know only too well that dust jackets can often double or triple outcomes, sometimes multiply them many times over. It's an important topic, one that we haven't yet addressed at BookThink. In the coming weeks I'll attempt to redress this omission with a series of articles. Sub-topics will include dust jacket history, bibliographic matters, design, notable designers, the care and repair of dust jackets, facsimile and married dust jackets, etc. - and of course I'll take a good look at how we as booksellers can profit from a working knowledge of dust jackets.

By way of a preview of Part II, I'll leave you with a photograph of a dust jacket from ABC for Book Collectors author John Carter's collection - the earliest known dust jacket. Yes, that's an "1833" under the title, but it's older yet. The book was actually published in 1832. Whoa.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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