Innovate or die is the philosophy underpinning all manner of technology. Buy a new computer or TV and it’s just about obsolete before you take it out of its box. Strangely, though, such innovation rules haven’t applied to books and reading. Sure, audio books and e-books are on the horizon, but they’re the first major change in book formats for aeons—and even now the old styles seem to be hanging on. I’m talking dust covers and hard covers—two aspects of book formats that should have been allowed to die an undignified death long ago.
As a former bookseller, it took all my effort not to roll my eyes when some pretentious parent affecting a too-proper accent would sneer at paperbacks and request books for their child only in matching, hard cover-replete-with-dust-cover box set formats. Whether the child wouldn’t bother reading such books because they’d be forced to wear white gloves and sit quietly in the corner in the antithesis of book reading enjoyment, or whether—worse—they’d be precocious twats who most likely weren’t liked by their classmates and probably put others off reading, varied. Either way, hard covers and dust covers did—and do—reading a disservice.
Books are meant to be read, enjoyed, taken with you, slotted into hand- or man-bags, pulled out on the bus or train or at the beach, and read at every available opportunity. In fact, books go hand in hand with verbs: read, devour, discuss, debate, analyse, critique. Hard covers and dust covers? They get in the way of the action, literally and figuratively. Their very names connote a lack of action and instead imply books sitting stationary on shelves, unread and gathering dust.
Then there’s their cumbersomeness and fragility. As far as I’m concerned, anything that detracts or distracts from the reading process—by falling off, flapping around, getting in the way physically, or through forcing you to worry about whether it might, through normal use, be too heavy to carry or too fragile to survive the journey—has to go. Indeed, I think dust covers are like wrapping paper—they’re meant to be torn off in eager anticipation of discovering and enjoying the present underneath.
Dust covers first appeared in the 19th century when some clever dick came up with the idea of using them for advertising. Innovative at the time, but it’s no longer, with the advent of much better ways to advertise your product, the case. So why haven’t hard covers and dust covers gone the way of the idea dodo? They’re expensive to produce and purchase, fragile to ship, display, and handle while reading and, if advertising really was the underlying premise, no longer effective, as the first thing many of us do is remove the dust cover and ignore it. Who even still has the dust cover wrapped, intact, around the book by the time they’ve finished it? Who just about gets bedsores or aching arm drop off trying to read too-heavy hard covers in bed?
The only hard covers that might win me over these days have done away with the dust cover (hooray!) and applied some design innovation. You know the ones. The oh-so-cute, at-once-timeless, clothbound Penguin Classics, which include pink flamingo-adorned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, peacock feather-like decorated The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the delicate flowers of Sense and Sensibility. Contrary to run-of-the-mill hard covers and dust covers, which put you off an otherwise good book, these covers make you want to read, buy, and physically touch (yep, verbs again) these classics.
We probably shouldn’t be surprised that these new takes on old books have come from the same company that brings us good reads at budget prices courtesy of such orange-covered modern classic titles as In Cold Blood, The Secret History, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the reason both these new clothbound classics and the old budget reads are so popular: Penguin understands that reading is the key and, instead of turning off readers through cumbersome design and prohibitive pricing, they’re turning on readers with good design and affordable prices. In short, they’re making the wrapping paper appealing, but know that it’s the present under that paper that’s the key.