Another Perspective on Dust-Jackets

by Tom Congalton

Sunday, Apr 30, 2006

I read Julian Rota's article "The Fate and State of Removable Dust-Jackets" reporting on the conference of the same name held at the University of London, with the sort of fascination and enthusiasm that I usually reserve for articles on sordid sex scandals involving Hollywood starlets. I very much regret that I did not have the opportunity to attend the symposium, at which I have little doubt I would have been an appreciative and attentive attendee.

While I found all of the subjects upon which Julian Rota reported worthy of attention (and it sounds like a broad and useful array of topics were covered), I was particularly struck by the apparent unanimity of opinion that existed among the participants upon the subject of the switching of removable dust-jackets. Julian expressed regret in his article about having no opposing view represented at the conference, although his description of Rick Gekoski's presentation seemed to me, at least, to suggest some modest chinks in the armor of that unanimity.

For a bookseller, whose stock in trade largely consists of modern first editions, to voluntarily take up the cudgel against the professed cause of "bibliographical integrity" as this ideal relates to dust-jackets, hazards the same risk that an American or British politician might incur in defending the practice of inter-species dating. There's no real upside to it.

To some degree, I find myself not entirely unsympathetic with the apparently unanimous view expressed by the participants in the symposium. However, I have always been suspicious of unanimous opinions, especially where they concern the rare book trade, where any random gathering of ten booksellers can pretty much be counted upon to elicit at least twelve different opinions on any book-related subject.

This unanimity of opinion described by Julian seems also not to be entirely devoid of some elements of hypocrisy and righteousness which, taken by themselves, are at least mildly unpalatable, but which when mixed together create a brew of some toxicity that I find very difficult to swallow. So despite all the obvious hazards and pitfalls to which I might subject myself, I find myself willing to take issue with some elements of this unanimity.

In order to aspire to my rapidly dwindling hope of brevity, I think I will do well to confine my remarks to the commonly collected books of the twentieth century. I do not mean for them to apply to what are perhaps certain unique nineteenth century jackets, or books and examples of their jackets that exist in only a handful of copies.

Julian's article notes Rick Gekoski's opinion "referring to the ABA / Bookdealer debate," that "books and dust-wrappers are 'married' in the first place at the publishers and switching of the correct dust-wrapper is therefore justifiable although it 'risks monkeying about with bibliographical evidence'."

I do not know if Rick's conclusion is correct, but the basis on which he posits it is at least evidentially correct. Jackets are often printed at geographically distinct locations from where their corresponding books are printed, and as they are usually printed in color - a more costly printing process - the publisher often takes advantage of the economies of scale inherent in the process to commission a larger quantity of dust-jackets than he might immediately have uses for. Thus, it is not at all uncommon for second and third printings, and even in some less common cases of which I am aware, as late as eighth and ninth printings, of a certain book being issued by the publisher in identical "first printing" dust-jackets. (I won't be more specific about these books, more or less on the same principle that one hesitates to publish detailed instructions on the manufacturing of high explosives.)

When a publisher's functionary or warehouseman applies one of these dust-jackets to a corresponding book, is he the founder of this sacred bibliographical integrity to which we all so aspire? Is he any different than a dealer or collector who switches a bibliographically correct dust-jacket from one book to another? I suggest perhaps not; or, at least not always.

Would Professor Tanselle's exhortation to dealers against ever marrying dust-jackets to the appropriate books extend as well to the British Library, which apparently stores, or at least has stored their dust-jackets in bales at a discrete location from the books? While the forensic bibliographic chain might well have been broken, is it really a sin to re-unite them, and would the bibliographer have nothing to gain from this blessed (or apparently, damned) event?

If a collector or dealer wishes to adorn his inscribed copy of a notable book with a dust-jacket that is identical to the one with which it might originally have been adorned, is the bibliographical integrity of his copy impugned? Perhaps, but I suggest in very few cases does this apparent break in the bibliographical chain result in the loss of some usable bibliographical information. If that book is a copy of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, is the removal of one of the seemingly hundreds of available copies of the first edition from the marketplace in order to supply said dust-jacket going to impede the laborers in the bibliographical groves? Probably not.

I submit that the economic imperative that might make the switching of jackets on a particular title tempting in the first place, is at least strong evidence that the necessary bibliographical work vis-a-vis that book has already been accomplished. Long before there was an economic incentive to switch the dust-jackets on first editions of such highly collectible American authors as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, all or most of the bibliographical issues and states of those dust-jackets had been identified (if not always published) by bibliographers, collectors, or dealers, or in many cases, in various combinations of the three. And it is the dealers and collectors who have the most at stake in determining the proper sequence of these issues and states because, ultimately, they are going to be the ones to put their money where their conclusions lead them.

Ever heard of Lida Larrimore? I thought not. My interest in vintage dust-jackets has given me cause to buy, and even occasionally sell, copies of novels by this thoroughly forgotten American romance novelist. I have never been tempted to switch the dust-jacket on a Lida Larrimore book. I have never heard of any of my colleagues or customers being tempted to switch the jacket on a Lida Larrimore book, if indeed they had even heard of her at all. I suppose Ms. Larrimore will reside forever in the netherworld of literary obscurity. However, if the clamor rings forth from Manhattan or Mayfair, from Harvard or Cambridge for first editions of the novels of Ms. Larrimore, I will, I hope, be prepared to meet the demand. And long before the economic incentive exists for me, my colleagues, or the collectors of her works to supply dust-jackets for Ms. Larrimore's books from other copies, I suspect I will have identified, through observation and experience, in consultation with my colleagues, and maybe even with the help of some visionary (or really, really desperate) academic, a bibliographically convincing trail of evidence about the priorities and states of those books and their dust-jackets.

Dealers' catalogues from the first part of the twentieth century seldom, or rarely, mention the presence of dust-jackets. However, since I have been active in the trade, like every other modern first edition dealer, I have labored under a constant barrage of accusation by collectors, librarians, and even from my antiquarian colleagues, that in my professional capacity I have valued dust-jackets too much. Were we Philistines because we paid too much attention to dust-jackets, their states, their points, their condition, and priced our books accordingly? Have we now come full circle when a conference must be convened in order to tell me that I am a Philistine because I have valued them too little? Who knew?

On this note, am I alone in noting at least a whiff of irony emanating from this conference composed in large part of academics, librarians, and bibliographers? These professions as a whole, if the rest of Julian Rota's report is accurate, supplanted by their own testimonies, have been singularly and in large part ignorant of the bibliographical significance of dust-jackets, and mostly heedless of the continuing need for preserving them. Most bibliographers (and here may I pay homage to the exceptions) have historically paid little, if any attention to dust-jackets, and nearly all the information we have on these objects has been preserved by dealers and collectors. Most scholars have come late to the game, and apparently seem to think that all that should be left now is for them to apply their imprimatur to the subject, when much of the hard work has already been done. Sadly, their attentions come a bit too late to be of great use.

They further feel compelled to issue ethical guidelines on the handling of dust-jackets to those who have been the most active in preserving and identifying them: collectors and dealers in modern first editions. I hasten to add that the participants in this conference, who seem willing to acknowledge the mistakes, omissions, and depredations of their predecessors, should probably not be numbered amongst these transgressors. This conversion among their fellows to the point of view that dust-jackets matter is all to the good, but bibliography is much too important a subject to be trusted solely to the bibliographers.

Bibliography, long the province of enlightened amateurs, has not been appreciably improved, at least as it concerns modern first editions, by the ministrations of professional bibliographers. As one colleague remarked to me, "If you could take all the bibliographers in the world, and laid them end to end, they couldn't reach an agreement." More important to me than a vague allegiance to a perhaps unknowable bibliographical ideal are the exigencies of everyday experience as they present themselves to a practicing bookseller, a collector trying to assemble a collection, and to a bibliographer busily parsing states and issues, much of whose work he may find has already been done for him.

Pious and heartfelt pronouncements decrying the practice of dust-jacket switching are all well and good, and, when that fact is not disclosed, probably morally and ethically unassailable. However in practice, they are rather like issuing a prohibition to Eve from partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil. Dust-jackets have been switched from books for decades. And while there is some reason to believe, as Rick Gekoski asserts, that this practice may have started as a collector-driven American phenomenon, English dealers and collectors were not long in adopting it as their own.

We are perhaps better served by applying our critical faculties to the task at hand - identifying to the best of our abilities, and with what bibliographic rigor we can muster, the object as it is, not the one that we might wish that it was. A dealer who repeatedly mis-describes dust-jacket states, or wantonly supplies bibliographically incompatible dust-jackets to books, will not long enjoy the confidence of his colleagues or customers, and is sure, in the fullness of time, to suffer the corresponding economic consequences.

A bad dust-jacket marriage is much like its human counterpart - an event much to be regretted and inevitably bound to wind up in tears. I have railed against this practice before, to no very good effect, but I am heartened by my continuing observations that the machinery of the marketplace, abetted by single-minded collectors, the better species of bibliographers, curious librarians, and working booksellers is sufficient to police itself. While unscrupulous or incompetent specimens in each of these professions will always exist, and might even seem in the ascendance in this brave new world of Ebay and the Internet, I suspect that competence and professionalism will eventually and ultimately hold sway. Organizations such as the ABA, the ABAA, the other national associations of ILAB, and their individual members, are the bastions that help to protect the ideal of bibliographical integrity from the depredations of the marketplace.

I understand that the ABA's Modern First Editions sub-committee has reported to the ABA council that the organization's current code of practice is sufficient to cover this topic. Earlier attempts, spearheaded at least in part by dealers in more antiquarian books, to ban the exhibition of books so adorned, have been forestalled. In private correspondence, Julian Rota tells me that this was never seriously considered, and while I don't for a second doubt Julian's sincerity, others in the British modern first edition trade say otherwise.

At any rate, they are to be congratulated. One can only marvel at the spectacle that might otherwise have occurred. One wonders if the members of an ABA vetting committee comprised of antiquarian dealers would be willing to interrupt their tireless labors in preparing their inventory for sale - industriously replacing endpapers, transferring maps and plates that are lacking from their copies from other copies in their hospitals, supplying leaves in facsimile when that is not practicable, trotting out their paint boxes to color the supplied maps and plates, matching up the odd volumes of sets, or gathering Dickens novels in parts from very disparate parts indeed (all carefully described and noted, of course), in order that they might otherwise apply their tender mercies to parsing whether one or another dust-jacket has arrived at a book fair on the self-same book that it originally adorned? Again, I applaud the ABA for avoiding this hypocrisy, which seems less the province of such an august body as it does the stuff of farce. One can only imagine what fun Mr. Wodehouse, or Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan, would have made of such a fulsomely throated quire.

In my inventory of nearly 35,000 books, I have four that are described as almost certainly having supplied dust-jackets, and two that I positively assert have supplied dust-jackets. I think supplied dust-jackets should be identified as such. I think that it is the responsibility of reputable dealers to make the strongest attempts to ascertain the nature of the material in their possession, and then clearly and forthrightly describe the results of those investigations. Beyond that I am a little leery of passing judgment. A prohibition against switching dust-jackets may produce a most satisfying and self-righteous warmth in the jury box, but is, ultimately, a delusional avoidance of the reality that exists on the ground.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of the ABAA Newsletter.