Exhibition Shows You Can Judge a Book by Its Dust Jacket

Gatsby Cover
The Great Gatsby‘s iconic cover

Is it true you can’t judge a book by its cover? Literally? Literarily? Don’t bother answering. What you can certainly do is judge a cover by its cover. What got me thinking along these lines is the Gatsby to Garp exhibition at the Morgan Library, open through Sept. 7. Books, manuscript pages, letters, etc., from the Carter Burden collection are displayed according to literary categories relevant to the 20th century.

(Carter Burden? He’s the late New York City publisher and philanthropist.)

Story continues below.

The most eye-catching elements shown in the exhibitioin, however, are the book covers. Hold on, I have to be exact here, and exactitude makes a mockery of the old cover-versus-book saying. That’s because we’re not talking about book covers, are we? In almost all instances, we’re talking about dust jackets.

Story continues below.

As a matter of helpful fact, the show’s wall text specifies that, though dust jackets were introduced in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1920s that they were modernized, that bright colors were employed, that they became not a prompt to judge the book they were adorning but an invitation to be considered iconic in their own right.

Without being told, most readers and dust-jacket oglers would guess that the first and possibly still the most iconic example is the one designed for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age tragedy The Great Gatsby. We all know the Fitzgerald name, of course, but how many of us know the name of the dust jacket’s designer?

He was Francis Cugat. He’s the one who came up with the eyes-without-a-face notion—well, woman’s-eyes-and-mouth-without-a-face notion—for the 1925 Scribner’s publication. He’s the one who set the image against a deep-blue night sky with hints of a glaring big city in the background and a partial string of pearls in the middle ground. It’s his absolutely iconic design that the Scribner people chose to use again for the 2004 reprint.

Story continues below.

As visitors make their way around the Morgan Library display cases, they get to see other instantly familiar dust jackets—those that have worked their way into the literati consciousness almost as indelibly as the books for which they were conjured.

Elmer Hader’s cover design for John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

Elmer Hader created the cover for John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Hader has a figure representing Tom Joad seen from the back in the foreground looking toward a more verdant landscape. Arthur Hawkins is responsible for the shafts of various shaded and stylized sunbeams for William Faulkner’s Light in August. Michael Mitchell came up with the furious red horse and rider commanding the top half of the dust jacket for J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

A dust jacket with which I was totally unfamiliar was the one protecting Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. It’s Cleonike Damianakes’s vision, and it baffled me at first. A slumbering Greek figure is seated on the ground wearing a loose toga and leaning against a tree in front of a circular something. Then I got it: It’s Helios, the god of the sun, before he awakes from his dream and once again heads across the sky.

The more I worked my way through the exhibition, which is surely a must-see for people who love books, the more questions cropped up in my mind. Foremost, perhaps obviously, is: Are you ever truly able to judge a book by its cover? Or is it just possible that certain astute designers, having read and liked the book for which they’re designing the dust jacket, are inspired to match the text’s quality with their artistry, and the potential reader responds to that?

The Catcher in the Rye
Michael Mitchell’s take on
The Catcher in the Rye

Here’s the dust jacket rub: Readers today are more and more frequently not going to bookstores to find what they want. They’re downloading on their Kindle, Nook or whatever. They’re scanning Amazon.com pages where dust jackets appear in miniature. This begs the question: Is the time coming when dust jackets will be meaningless, unnecessary things of a fading literary past?

As far as I’m concerned, this would be tragic, but possibly not for current and future generations of readers. After all, I’m still the kind of reader who likes to hold actual books, no matter how thick and heavy they are. I’m the kind of reader who’s forgotten that dust jackets came into being to protect books. I’m concerned about taking pains to protect the dust jacket.

Story continues below.

I’m the kind of reader who’s grateful that first-edition collector Burden paid top dollar for pristine copies and that the book-lined Morgan Library, following book-loving J. P. Morgan’s passion, apparently thinks about books the same way I do.

Books and the BookExpo
Speaking of books, which many of us never tire of championing: I attended BookExpo America (BEA) at the end of May. I make a point of going every year. It’s too much fun to miss—not because the publishing industry is in great shape. It isn’t, but for this annual book look, people put on their best face and keep the Amazon-Hachette conflict discussions whispered only.

I’m there for what amuses me, and nothing amused me more this year than Jane Lynch’s appearance on the Thursday I strolled up the aisles. She was on hand to sign copies of Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean, her children’s picture book, being published this September by Random House.

Story continues below.

The line was extremely long (longer even than the one for Billy Idol), and the tall Lynch, arriving early, chose to walk the length of it to see how far it stretched. As she strode to its far end, passing all the avowed Lynch lovers, not one of them noticed her. I asked myself what this says about fame. I came up with no answer.

What I did come up with were the giveaways—always a convincing reason to attend any BEA. The most practical this year (attendance at which was only slightly less than last year but still indicative of something) was Friesen’s Little Book of Big Ideas. I picked it up expecting to find funny ideas on every page. Instead, it’s empty not only of ideas but of any text. But thank heavens for it, since having forgotten to bring a notebook, I now had one.

Among my other favorite freebies—putting aside the Dove Bar handed to me at an authors’ advocacy booth—are a copy of Important Playwright Annie Baker’s version of Uncle Vanya, Peter Lovesey’s The Stone Wife (since I haven’t read him in too long a time), and Harvard University Press’ bookmark shaped like a crook. Can’t wait until BEA 2015.

Story continues below.