I’m the first to admit, there’s lots to love about e-books. they’re portable, convenient, and Uncle Henry can enlarge the font to ?super gigantic? and bid farewell to his bifocals. But what really grabs me first about a book is its cover. And a lot of times, that means its physical properties?even if It’s simply the glossy stock or raised letters of a paperback. Because as much as we claim not to judge a book by its cover, as the old saying goes, the truth is that beautifully crafted bindings are works of art. they’re also an element of reading that could disappear in this digital era.
Not that I’m waxing sentimental about the physical experience of reading a paper book. Far from it. The comfort of propping up a feather-light e-reader wins out over a hardcover or thick paperback every time. And I haven’t yet encountered a book printed on such exquisite paper that I’d turn my nose up at an e-ink screen. Even the few truly antique books I own, from the 1800s, don’t boast anything fabulous in that regard.
In the right hands, though, a book’s cover becomes an artist’s palette. Not simply the graphics, but the physical entity. Like this first edition, first impression of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (incidentally, the first of Tolkien’s fiction to be published). This copy was published in 1937, and the cover features ?full green morocco, titles and decoration to spine gilt, raised bands, single rule to boards gilt? and ?an elaborate onlay to both the front and back boards.? Enlarging the thumbnails gives you a glimpse of the creative talent involved.
Equally astonishing is this cover of Tulips and Tulipomania, created by Jean Gunner in 1982. Click the image for a truly close-up view of the ?dark greyish-blue morocco, with onlays in many shades of red, brown, yellow and green.? And then there’s this fascinating example of textile book binding from the 1700s, made from materials like white silk and pearls.
Rare antique volumes aren’t the only place you’ll find well-crafted covers. Many modern artists still create works that any bibliophile would covet.
So far, finely crafted physical covers aren’t something e-books look likely to replace. In fact, the nature of e-books is so ephemeral that we no longer see them once their container is turned off, so it doesn’t seem likely there’ll be much call for artists to offer custom-made e-reader covers for specific books.
But maybe that prediction is wrong. In fact, e-readers might just offer a whole new outlet for artists. Maybe, once the cost of the readers comes down and everybody’s got one, the new trend will be for personalized covers. Not just colour options like you can order for your laptop, but exquisite designs in leather or fabric, perhaps numbered in a limited-edition release.
Either way, it would be a shame if the artistry of book binding disappeared entirely. Because sometimes, a beautifully crafted cover tells a story all its own.