I venture to guess that most of us, if we have ever thought about dust jackets, have not thought much about them. In fact, up until my having mentioned it, the vast majority of both my readers have probably never given them much thought at all.
What exactly is the purpose of a dust jacket and why is it called that? Without going to the extraordinarily tiresome work of looking things up, I’m going to guess that someone, at one time, got the idea of wrapping a book in an extra layer of paper (as if there weren’t already a lot of paper in the book!) so as to keep the dust off.
The problem, someone quickly pointed out (there are always people ready to point out problems), was that with the book wrapped up in paper like that it made it awfully hard to get at the readin’. It was then that someone else hit on the idea of only wrapping up the cover. This solved the one problem but still left most of the book—especially that part full of reading matter—exposed to the dust.
At this point, the publisher probably just gave up and started drinking.
Now-a-days, the purpose of a dust jacket is to a] look attractive; 2] provide a few details about the contents of the book; and c] snag on things so that the cellophane tape people can stay in business. (Oh, and, it also serves a fourth purpose as we use it to mark our page, unless it’s a book that is so thick that the dust jacket flap can’t reach as far as we’ve read but that’s OK because we probably weren’t ever going to finish that book, anyway.)
If a book were to lose it’s jacket, it’s not like it’s in danger of catching cold like some inattentive second grader who may have left her jacket in either the art room, the science class, or Aunt Nell’s. If a book loses its jacket, about 99.9% of what made the book worth having to begin with is just as good as it ever was.
However, as a voracious reader [note to self: try to find a dictionary and see if that’s the word I meant], if I am reading a book that came with a dust jacket, I generally set the jacket aside until I have finished the book. This is partly because I want it to stay pristine. Why I care, I’m not sure. If I have any friends who are likely to walk into my house and mumble under their breath about the ragged shape of my books, they have kept their voices so low I never knew what they were saying. But maybe they aren’t saying anything because I’m one of those OCD people who, when it comes to books, can read all the way through a paperback without leaving any noticeable creases or breaks on the spine. The pages turn yellow and fall out before I break the spine!
Anyway, the other reason I take the dust jacket off while reading a book is because if I don’t, another one of my personality quirks kicks in and my reading constantly gets interrupted by having to reposition the jacket as it has somehow slid up or down on the book. “This book is really interesting but, oh my! The jacket is poking a full eighth of an inch above the hard cover! Zoot alores, or whatever it is the French exclaim!”
I say all this, though, because there is one other thing I like about dust jackets. Sometimes, when you take one off, you find that the publisher has placed some attractive embossing on the hard cover. Maybe it’s a symbol from within the book or maybe it’s just the title or the author’s name, but I always feel like I have uncovered a tiny little treasure. Here’s this neat little picture, evocative of the whole book, and most people will never see it because they don’t look past the dust jacket. Kind of my own little secret message from a publisher I’ll never meet, saying, “Hey, this is for you, a token of my esteem for someone who likes a good book.”