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My Complicated Relationship to the Dust Jacket

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Erika Harlitz-Kern

Staff Writer

Erika Harlitz-Kern holds a doctorate from a Swedish university and can't get enough of history, books, and music. Her earliest memories involve a comic book and a Dutch troubadour. She has travelled South Asia on a shoestring, although nowadays she spends most of her vacations in the Mississippi Delta. Lives with her husband in South Florida, because sooner or later they would've ended up there anyway. Blog: The Boomerang Twitter: EH_Kern

When you pick up a book, the first thing that greets you is the cover. Often the cover consists of a detachable piece of paper wrapped around the front and back using folded flaps. This detachable piece of paper is called the dust jacket.

I have a complicated relationship to the dust jacket. Most of the time I just want to do away with it. In other words, most of the time I prefer my books as the bookbinder created them—naked.

There are several reasons why dust jackets bother me.

First of all, what kind of a name is “dust jacket,” anyway? To me it sounds more like something that would be part of a Victorian gentleman’s wardrobe. Next to the smoke jacket on its hanger, there would be the dust jacket.

Second, dust jackets are fragile. Already before I decide to take the book off the shelf I have to make sure that it hasn’t been damaged. And when I pack a bag—if only to go to a coffee shop for an hour of reading—I leave the dust jacket at home out of fear of accidentally tearing it.

I understand that a book needs a cover to promote its contents. And I also understand that a dust jacket is a comparatively economical way for publishers to achieve this goal. But what is the point in providing a book cover that is so delicate that the reader needs to leave it behind?

Third, the dust jacket takes away from the experience of the book as artifact. The book hiding underneath the dust jacket is actually a beautiful object in and of itself.

Book Riot_151115_6

Furthermore, a bookshelf without dust jackets is a different aesthetic experience from a shelf with dust jackets. I have considered permanently removing all the dust jackets and just have a bookcase displaying the naked books. Naked books are beautiful in their simplicity and austerity.

2015-11-15_1312 2015-11-15_1312b

On the other hand, I have to admit that there are some benefits to the dust jacket. I mean, the flaps do make excellent bookmarks.

Moreover, it is on the dust jacket you find the artwork that has been chosen to represent the story you are about to read. I discovered Hanya Yanagihara because of the dust jacket artwork of her debut novel, The People in the Trees (embossed maggots!). And I discovered Manil Suri because of the dust jacket to the Swedish edition of his debut novel, The Death of Vishnu (pink and gold!).

Hanya Yanagihara_The People in the TreesManil Suri_The Death of Vishnu (Swedish)

What is your relationship to dust jackets? Do you like them or do you prefer your books naked?