Book jackets or dust jackets. Call them what you will. Most of my books no longer have them, if they ever did. Those with hard covers, however, fall into another category. But since what matters is inside and I couldn’t care less for what it looks like, often I’d rather get a less expensive soft cove, easier to read as I lie in bed on my side, pulling the covers up around my shoulders. So the books by my bedside are mostly paper backs. Yes, some of you have an illustration on the front cover, but that’s just for the sake of identification. If you’re an “important” book you’re likely to be ensconced on a shelf in the other room and merit an elegant book jacket.
What’s that you say, gentleman from Moscow? True, you are nobility and I do consider you particularly important. You ask if I considered getting you in hard or soft cover, but it’s not quite that simple for I wanted to share you with as many others as I could. So the only hard cover I bought was for myself and your place is where I can get hold of you when I want.
A colorful dust jacket is always a help if you’re looking for a specific book among many others. Since most of you important books are rather scholarly, I feel your dress always reflects who you really are. Now if you were a novel, I wouldn’t be so sure. A flamboyant dress might just be trying to entice me to buy you. The same holds for CDs. Take All the Mornings in the World which is about the 17th century violist Sainte Colombe. Yet the cover shows two lovers entwined in a passionate embrace. So misleading. It is after all advertising which appeals to certain aspects of human nature, in particular sex. So, let me ask you first of all if you are really telling the truth, my array of colorful dust jackets?
True, the dust jacket also protects the cover, but one good reason for having a dust jacket is that you can use the flap to mark where you’ve stopped reading when you turn out the light and pull up the covers. Others say it’s also a good place for information on the author. Really, I’d rather have that in an introduction.
Talking about dust jackets, take all those cook books on the shelves behind my desk. Many of you have dust jackets – not that they help all that much for a cook book is hard to keep from getting smudged with chocolate or batter. With the exception, Castelvetro, of your beautifully illustrated Fruits, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy. There aren’t that many recipes, but it is a book to treasure. Like Artusi, it is just fun to read. You wrote your book in 1614 to help the English improve their deplorable cooking and your advice is still valid today. You are definitely nobility surrounded by less pretentious “peasants” clothed only in brown butcher’s paper.
To come down to it, the question remains. To have or not to have a dust jacket.
Augustus Hare, George Dennis, Jenny Diski
Oh dear, there you are encyclopedias and dictionaries, lined up in rows, very somber and serious. None of you have dust jackets. Of course, you insist, we were meant to be consulted often and a dust jacket would simply have gotten in the way. Our hard covers tell you that we were meant for practical purposes. The same holds for you, boring old Baedeckers and Touring Club editions. You were interested only in facts. The many illustrated guidebooks, most of which I translated into English from Italian, French or Spanish, are alluring with their colored photos, but sometimes I wonder if what we imagine isn’t more real and vivid.
And some of you, treasured books, are so old any dust jacket you may once have had is only a memory. You almost seem hidden away for safety at this point, above those dictionaries and encyclopedias.
Now you, Augustus Hare, are pretty much falling to pieces. Neither you or George Dennis have any colored photos, although you compensate by the many engravings included. The information you give is so much more interesting.
Dear Augustus, I love the fact that in what you call dull-useful information you tell us where to buy drawing materials as well as where the chemists are to be found. Now tell me again what the best time is to see the arch of Constantine from the Coliseum. And which months are best for drawing. Then how often you quote the poets and the classical authors. I don’t know how you managed to put all this material together. You are a real encyclopedia of facts and now I know that the first time it was called Coliseum was by the Venerable Bede. Now why can’t people write like you any more?
And George Dennis, your information on the Etruscans is amazing for the mid-nineteenth century. I wonder did you know D.H. Lawrence. No, you couldn’t have for he was only a boy when you died. How I envy both of you, discovering things where no one except the Etruscans or the wandering shepherd had set foot for centuries. You are both so enthusiastic. I realize Herr Baedecker, that you, and Dennis, in your Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria, wrote in the mid-nineteenth century when tourism was at its beginnings, with trains giving people a chance to travel, although it was still mostly by coach and horses. Now how far back does traveling of this sort go? The Grand Tour, you say. Quite true. I love what Thomas Adolphus Trollope wrote back in 1862. (Now there’s a book I’d like to have but even if I don’t, I can still quote his observations). “The English and the Americans do look out to right and left as they journey along the beaten track…” “The French care for nothing but the large cities … as for the Germans, …they are for the most part men of science or of learning…and (your German) is not the man to be stopped by any want of horses or fear of bad inns…. Trollope, you are not very flattering when you compare tourists to sheep, but perhaps your observations are still valid.
The great thing about books is that one can jump centuries, and find that while the types of travel change, those who travel remain pretty much the same. Take Jenny Diski.
Dear Jenny, your idea of circumnavigating the United States by train was fantastic. Not just the trains themselves and the landscapes, some of which were pretty monotonous, but the people you met, discovering that everyone had a unique story to tell and that appearances often belied reality.
There were of course those who crossed the United States on the Lincoln Highway or Route 66 as described by Zadoorian in The Leisure Seeker, or those who walked from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I doubt I would have had the courage to do anything like that, I never even tried to do some of the Pilgrim Routes in Spain or Italy, much as I would have liked to.
How I wish some of you were around so I could ask you all kinds of questions, many, but not all, answered in your writings. No one though has told me where to find the green men in Italy. Guidebooks, and now the virtual visits we can access on the computer, really are another way of travelling, of going to places we had only dreamed of seeing. Yet, aren’t all books really that? Taking us either to other places or to other worlds or other parts of ourselves.