Many readers suffer a tormented relationship with book jackets or, as most people call them, dust jackets. I certainly do. In my youth, I admired the private libraries of writers and professors who discarded these garish and easily torn outer coverings from their books, leaving only the subdued cloth bindings. As a result, serried rows of soft blue and faded burgundy lined their substantial mahogany shelves. To my youthful eyes, such personal libraries looked grown-up, serious; the books were clearly tools rather than icons or decorative objects for furnishing a living room. Nonetheless, en masse they still conveyed a welcoming, clubbable warmth suggestive of leather chairs and brandy.

Alas, such libraries are definitely a thing of the past. Not because of e-books but because of dust jackets. As any modern collector knows, the presence of a dj, particularly one in fine condition, dramatically affects the value of a book. A jacketless first printing of “The Great Gatsby” (1925) might set you back a couple of thousand dollars. But a copy in a fine jacket could easily go for a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Or more. Nobody blithely discards book jackets now, no matter how gaudy they seem, no matter how imprinted one’s heart is with memories of old-fashioned scholarly libraries.

As G. Thomas Tanselle sternly reminds us, “The truth is that the unjacketed copy is simply a defective copy.” Sigh. He’s right, of course. After all, Tanselle is our leading authority on all matters bibliographical, the greatest American textual scholar since Fredson Bowers. While his essays and occasional polemics demand close attention from the reader, they are invariably models of clear statement and precise argument, every point being supported by the most scrupulous scholarship and attention to detail.

In “Book-Jackets: Their History, Forms, and Use,” Tanselle reminds us that paper coverings for books are much older than is commonly imagined. In 1929, John T. Winterich of Publishers’ Weekly asked, “How old is the dust-jacket?” Scholars and dealers soon reported the existence of jackets on several 1890s titles by Stephen Crane, on Lewis Carroll’s 1876 book-length poem “The Hunting of the Snark” and on Dickens’s last novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” published in 1870. Eventually, a few examples turned up from the 1830s, even as a small number of 1820s titles were discovered with proto-jackets, i.e., envelope-like sleeves or sheaths. Tanselle speculates that from at least as early as the 1870s, books were commonly being issued in some kind of jacket. But try finding one. In 40 years of collecting and research, Tanselle is aware of fewer than 1,900 copies of 19th-century books with surviving dust jackets. He lists them all in the second half of this book.

Before 1820, publishers didn’t need slipcovers for their wares. Although some books might be issued in temporary boards with spine labels, most were typically sold as loose sheets. Purchasers would then commission bookbinders to sew these pages together and attach plain or decorative covers to the resulting text-block. But when finished books with cloth bindings became the norm in the 1820s, merchandising conventions changed. Detachable paper wrappers began to be used as protective devices to prevent a book from growing shopworn, soiled or faded by the sun. Although practices differed from publisher to publisher, these jackets — initially regarded as temporary — soon expanded beyond their original function: The front cover might reproduce the volume’s frontispiece or an interior illustration; the back might list other titles by the author or include descriptions and endorsements of the book’s contents. Soon, the inside flaps were being employed for similar advertising and promotion.

In short, virtually all the elements of 20th-century book jackets were present from relatively early on in their development, albeit without consistency or standardization. By the 1910s, publishers had clearly shifted their design attention from a book’s binding to the graphic possibilities of its dust jacket. A hundred years ago, a volume’s cover might still be stamped with a striking image or gorgeous decorations. Today, underneath the flashy jackets of 21st-century books, one generally finds only colored pieces of cardboard.

As Tanselle stresses, one can draw conclusions about publishing history and practice only when one possesses hard, physical evidence, and the more of it the better. He laments the loss of 19th-century dust jackets largely because without them, one is deprived of important bibliographical information. A flap might say “Fifth printing” or provide a picture and short biography of an otherwise little-known author. Blurbs, then as now, are both items in their authors’ bibliographies — Thomas Pynchon fans collect certain books just for his back-cover endorsements — and clues to the literary networking of the day.

In more modern books, the key issue is one of authenticity: Is the book wearing its proper jacket, or has it been dressed in borrowed finery? Dealers and collectors sometimes upgrade a less than perfect copy by removing a tattered dj and replacing it with a better one. Such sophistication, as it is called, short-circuits the historical evidence. The book is no longer as it was when issued by the publisher. It has been corrupted.

“Book-Jackets” is a superb work of scholarly investigation, broad enough to touch on the development of blurbs, the artists involved in early cover design and the need for accurate description of dust jackets in library catalogues. Still, I wish Tanselle had addressed more fully the matter of mylar protectors, widely used to guard fragile djs from being torn or stained. From the cover photograph of his own collection, some, but not all, of Tanselle’s books show jackets enclosed in mylar (not glassine, cellophane or plastic, which can degrade and harm the dj). Purists feel that this see-through armor takes away a certain aesthetic connection with the book; others are grateful for the security that protectors offer.

But, as I say, jackets are vexing. Should you read books with their jackets on or off? (I take them off.) Is there any good reason to acquire a facsimile dj? (Tanselle says there isn’t.) Should old djs ever be brightened up by a restorer? (No. Modest conservation is another matter.) Should research libraries stop removing jackets from their open-shelf books? (Yes, says Tanselle, or at least they should be catalogued and preserved.) Should I just stop worrying about things like this and buy an e-book reader? Hmm. I suppose I could, but what would be the fun in that?

Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at
. His latest book, “On Conan Doyle,” was recently published.


Their History, Forms, and Use

By G. Thomas Tanselle

Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia. 288 pp. $60