"I gather that to the many other arts has now been added the art of the book-jacket....To stand by any book-stall or to enter any book-shop is to witness a terrific scene of Internecine warfare between the Innumerable latest volumes, almost all of them violently vying with one another for one's attention, fiercely striving to outdo the rest in crudity of design and of colour. It is rather like visiting the parrot-house in the Zoological Gardens, save that there one can at least stop one's ears with one's fingers, whereas here one merely wants to shut one's eyes." Sir Max Beerbohm, The Observer, 1949
Deep in the bowels of Widener, an unnoticed cardboard box languishes under a soft blanket of dust amid myriad shelves of forgotten books. Once every few days, a leisurely old man walks down the silent aisle and stops, pulling the cord for a naked bulb to dispel the gloom. Bending over to the bottom shelf, the white-haired man takes out the box and lifts its lid. He smiles.
To librarian Herbert E. Kleist, the box which houses the Harvard book-jacket collection is worth more than all the first editions in Houghton. Since 1948 he has taken a few minutes at the end of each day to sift through the five or six dozen jackets accumulated for him by Widener's catalog department, where he works as a specialist in Dutch, African, and Frisian books. About ten per cent of these jackets escape immediate oblivion and go to his home for more critical scrutiny. Since Harvard College Librarian Keyes D. Metcalf decided in 1948 to preserve only the works of "outstanding and recognized artists" for the Harvard collection, Kleist must dig into reference books to establish the reputation of designers.
Kleist meticulously adds about 60 jackets a year to the Harvard collection, which now includes some 1000 jackets. The collection is listed in the card catalog under "book-jackets," and anyone can request to see it. Kleist admits that student enthusiasm for the collection has not been over-whelming. The last person to use it was a girl from Simmons doing a term paper on book-jackets in 1956.
But most of the jackets Kleist saves go into his personal collection. When the Harvard collection began, Kleist realized that many of the finest jackets were created not by famous artists, but by professional jacket-designers, who seldom achieved recognition outside their specialty. So he started a personal collection to preserve jackets which pleased his esthetic sensibility for graphic, calligraphic, and pictorial art.
Kleist's collection, with nearly 7000 jackets, is much larger than Harvard's. Arranged by year and then by country, it is one of the finest private collections of postwar jackets in the world. Kleist says he would gladly show his collection to interested students, but nobody has ever wanted to inspect it in its dingy tomb in the basement of Lamont.
Inside the basement's cardboard coffins lies an incredible variety of artistic curios. Ranging from flamboyant pictorial designs to quiet calligraphy, most jackets in the Harvard and Kleist collections are from books of fiction, where jackets are commercially crucial. The jacket-designer's task is to capture in one visual moment the character of a book which may be several hundred pages long. Specialized books of non-fiction don't need eye-catching jackets, for scientific and scholarly works are usually purchased for their academic reputations. The jackets of such books must convey simply the competence of their contents through sober design. But the typical reader of fiction is looking for entertainment, so fiction jackets must promise reading pleasure to undecided browsers.
Kleist characterizes jackt-design as primarily a commercial art. But as the reading public becomes more sophisticated, the jacket must appeal more by dignity and artistic merit than by sensationalism. By 1949, according to Kleist, enough worthy book-jacket art had appeared to warrant the first International Book-Jacket Exhibition, held in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Kleist himself staged exhibitions in 1951 and 1955.
Cultivating his admiration for "elegant simplicity" in his personal collection. Kleist saves few American jackets, since they tend to be "cheaply commercial, with large letters, bold designs, and slick paper." Germany, with a long tradition in fine printing and book design, has made valuable contributions to jacket art, but recent jackets are increasingly American in style. Postwar jackets up to 1950 reveal Germany's sense of guilt for the Third Reich. Trying to forget the implications of the Gothic type-faces ordered by Hitler, German artists turned to whimsical designs with floral patterns and bright pastels.
Kleist likes the "cool simplicity" and "clean typography" of Scandinavian jackets. Praising East European designs for their "unpretentious charm," he points to the "subtle and original" calligraphy of Czechoslovakian and Hungarian jackets. Poland has no competing publishing firms to vie for public favor with attractive jackets, but the State publishing monopoly nevertheless employs outstanding artists who have made Poland a leader in jacket design. Russian jackets, on the other hand, tend to be "stodgy and conventional." Kleist says that the lack of jackets on Chinese books is probably due to China's paper shortage.
Over half of the Harvard and Kleist collections are from England, where the book-jacket first emerged from its lowly dust-wrapper status. Originally used by London booksellers to keep their wares free from fog and grime, the book-jacket underwent a crucial metamorphosis when Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark came out in 1876. Snark's humble grey wrapper shouted critical praise for the two Alice books. As the first known jacket to carry advertisements, it was the ancestor of the modern commercial jacket. The English publisher who pioneered designs for fiction jackets was T. Fisher Unwin. As early as 1896, Unwin adored books with a design illustrating either an incident or a character in black silhouette on green Paper.
Until the recent rise of book-jacket specialists, English publishers frequently paid recognized artists to design jackets. Since commercialized publicity jackets have proven ineffective in England, publishers have stressed tasteful, artistic appeals to a discriminating public. Kleist's favorite designer is Edward Ardizzone, an illustrator of children's books who Paints "typically English, Dickensian characters" in subduded watercolors.
But lack of time, space, and encouragement has prevented Kleist from working on a permanent display and a comprehensive card catalog for the two collections. Kleist hopes that someday a cooperative effort by the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the School of Design, and the Fogg Museum will finance facilities and maintenance.
The Kleist collection should convince anyone that the essentially ephemeral craft of jacket-design has yielded an enormous quantity of sensitive and valuable art. Furthermore, jackets can represent important trends in graphic arts and book design. But in the end, the greatest value in their preservation, as Kleist points out, may be their interest to future generations as relics of a dead culture. As the late printing expert Holbrook Jackson said, "ephemera may prove to be reliable a guide to historians as the congeries of books in the Bodleian or the British Museum. The historian of the future may yet learn more of our period from book-jackets and blurbs than from the novels whose flamboyancies (they) are designed to sell.