Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Book Covers Became Artful Marketing Devices

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Book Covers Became Artful Marketing Devices

Article excerpt

Jackets Required:

An Illustrated History of American Book Jacket Design, 1920-1950,

By Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast

Chronicle Books,

San Francisco, 1995

144 pp., $19.95

'Jackets Required" celebrates the practitioners of book-jacket design, rather than the authors and their editors. The color reproductions help affirm that the jackets illustrated actual books, and are inextricably tied up in the march of ideas expressed in published works of fiction and nonfiction.

But they also helped sell books, and it is in the cross between literary evocation and marketing requirements that these jackets tell a compelling cultural history. The book features reproductions of scores of book jackets. Some are shown in three dimensions, in a spine-wise view that reveals the splayed pages of the book.

Often one wishes there was an explanation in the caption about the book itself. It is a testament to the designers' talents that one even wishes to reach out and leaf through the book, perhaps take it home for a read!

In one essay, the authors explain why fiction jacket design was typically more extravagant and artistic than that of nonfiction: "Publishers placed more emphasis on promoting fiction because novels were issued at a prodigious rate ... they filled the bookseller's shelves and fought for precious window display...."

Today the balance in the marketplace may have shifted, but the equation remains the same: The innovation, expense, and luxuriance of book jackets are very much a measure of commercial forces and trends. With this in mind, "Jackets Required" becomes more than a nostalgic stroll through the bookshops of our memories; it is an elegant study of the period that set the metronome for today's sometimes-frenzied publishing marketplace.

Prior to the 1920s, the dust jacket, then already a 90-year-old invention, had only occasionally been used for anything more than a protective wrapper for what designers and bibliophiles considered the "real" book - the hard binding itself. …

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