Edward Rothstein’s review in last Friday’s New York Times of the current exhibit at the Morgan Library focuses attention on the book jackets that make up an obvious part of the exhibit. The show, “Gatsby to Garp,” is about 20th century American literature, and one of Rothstein’s points is that the book jacket embodied – and sold – that literature in book form. “Jackets were the way books announced their significance in the modern bookstore — an institution that had this single century of hearty life.” It was, as he says, “the jackets’ golden age.”
Another of Rothstein’s points is that any public exhibit like this cannot convey the content of the books; by its nature, a display is about the form. You might show several copies of the same book, open to different pages, but that’s only a series of glimpses at the interior, where the words live. Reading is a continuous experience; viewing a staged exhibit is a series of observations. “This is usually one of the difficulties in literary exhibitions: it is impossible to offer the actual substance of the books, so the curator must make something of their presence, use them to illuminate one another, show why they are gathered in one place.” The Morgan’s curators seem to have dealt with this inherent contradiction in imaginative ways, but it’s still a conundrum.
Book jackets are the most obvious representation of a book, yet they aren’t really part of the book itself. The older term “dust jacket” is telling: the first purpose of a book jacket was simply to protect the book’s actual cover, which might be a highly decorated binding. In the development of commercial bookselling, it didn’t take long for publishers to realize that they could use these functional paper wrappers as advertising for the book inside.
That’s the primary function of a book jacket. It’s meant to attract the attention of the potential reader. But since most books for several decades have been paperback rather than hardcover, the distinction between the jacket and the cover has been obscured. Instead of an advertising wrapper that you could strip off once you’d bought the book, the paperback cover remains an integral part of the book when it’s on your shelves. The packaging, in effect, stays with the product.
Today, the book cover – or book jacket – has to function in a new way: as a small image on a digital screen. It’s still meant to attract the eye, but it has to do this at thumbnail size; and the hoped-for action by the potential buyer isn’t to pick up a book off a table but to tap or click the image on the screen.
How, I wonder, will a future collector like Carter Burden, whose collection forms the basis of the Morgan Library exhibition, commemorate the complex interplay of reading, writing, marketing, and bookselling that makes up publishing in the 21st century?