Sunday, February 18, 2024

Judging a Book by its Cover

Despite the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” that cover not only serves to protect and decorate, but it can also convey a good deal more. In a 2017 article by Curator Lee Hayes at the University of Adelaide writes, “A binding tells us as much, if not more, about a book’s provenance than an owner’s signature or bookplate. It assists librarians and historians to date and place a work. It provides insight into an owner’s economic and social standing.”

This is not lost on the experts and pundits who, as I have written before, we get to see in their homes in televised interviews. Though some chose their kitchens as a backdrop, more chose their libraries. Aesthetically I love the background of a wall of leather-bound books but, it is also fascinating to see these personal collections, paperback and hardbound, with the latest book they have written prominently displayed.

The Grolier Club in New York, founded in 1884, is “America’s oldest and largest society for bibliophiles and enthusiasts in the graphic arts”. It currently has an exhibition called “Judging a Book by its Cover” that includes this Book of Hours created in Paris, in 1673, by Michel Dauplet who possibly created the binding as well.

A leather-bound book tells us that the content is highly thought of as money has been spent on its binding. In past centuries goldsmiths and artists created bindings for works treasured by wealthy patrons. In our gallery, if an important catalog of a major collection was old and falling apart we would have a binding made for it, but of course, it would only have the title stamped on it.

The book cover can demonstrate the importance of the book or simply be used to entice the reader. If you look up how many books are published every year the figures vary enormously but the figure I found most often was 500,000 to a million. What sells the book aside from interest in the subject and good reviews? The book cover which makes it stand out among the profusion of titles. In any bookstore, people are browsing even if they came in for a specific book. What catches their eye they take it down to look at. Which cover would you pick?

When my wife and I were starting out and wanted to collect Art Nouveau we scoured street fairs, secondhand bookshops, and country antiques stores for hardcover books published in the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century. At that time even popular fiction often had covers stamped and colored with original Art Nouveau designs.

I was maybe 10 years old when an Israeli cousin was often in New York. He was invited to the seder celebration for the holiday of Passover. He brought me a Haggadah with beautiful illustrations of the story of the Exodus with a stamped patterned leather cover inset with a bronze relief plaque showing Jerusalem. Though I am not religious I treasure this object.

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