The Book Blinders

Our story begins in 2011 with the British Library’s first ever exhibition of science fiction. John Clute, inevitably, was called in to advise on the project. But he ended up doing rather more than that, including lending some books from his own collection for display. Because the British Library (BL), an institution tasked with being a repository for the nation’s literature, does a rather shoddy job of preserving books.

The BL is entitled to receive one copy of every book published in the UK. I know, I have to send them copies of every Wizard’s Tower publication. Given the choice, they prefer to have hardcovers. But for some inexplicable reason, over many, many decades, it has been the BL’s policy to remove the dust jacket from each book before storing it.

Consider, for a moment, a typical Wizard’s Tower hardcover. It is our policy to use the cover of the book to showcase the cover art. For legal reasons we have to have the ISBN bar code box on the back. But aside from that there is nothing but art. No title, no author name, no publisher logo, no blurb. All of that is only on the dust jacket. Which means, if you take the dust jacket off, you can’t tell what the book is without opening it and reading some of it.

That, of course, is by no means the worst of the BL’s crimes. The technology required to print the cover art on the actual cover without it costing a fortune is fairly new. In days gone by, covers tended to only carry the title and author name. Everything else, including the cover art, was on the dust jacket. Stripping off the dust jacket separates the book from the cover art which, in some cases is a fine piece of work by a famous artist. Because publishers tended not to credit the cover artist inside the book, without the dust jacket we may not even know who the artist was.

It get worse, and that is why Clute has written The Book Blinders. In a state of not inconsiderable fury at the BL over their wanton vandalism, he has done some research to find examples of the true horror of what has been perpetrated on our national literature. Initially this work took the form of posts on Farcebook whenever a new suitably awful example was found. Now there is an entire book of them. Hopefully it will stand as a dreadful warning to librarians the world over, and an example of What Not To Do.

One of the most egregious examples in the book is Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (written under the name of Murray Constantine because selling SF as a woman was even harder in 1937). The book is set a few years into the future, and describes the awful consequences for the world of the triumph of Nazi Germany. Fearing that a mere image would not get the message across, the publishers (Gollancz) devoted the entire dust jacket (front, both flaps and back) to an essay summarizing the plot. Legend has it that it was written by Victor Gollancz himself, though Malcolm Edwards says not. The BL has thrown away this vital part of the book.

‘Til We Have Faces by CS Lewis is referenced elsewhere in this issue where I discuss Taylor Driggers’ book on fantasy and religion. It should be clear from that, that the novel is a fairly serious endeavor. The first edition of the book had a long section on the back of the dust jacket in which the origins of the book (as a re-telling of Cupid and Psyche) are described, and Lewis himself explains his reasons for changing the story from the original. By the second edition, this had gone, and the publisher described the novel as a book for children. The BL has the first edition, but no dust jacket.

The first edition of Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man has, for a dust jacket illustration, a half-face photograph of the author. Behold the man indeed. Yet again, the BL did not see fit to preserve this fascinating authorial statement.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Also that’s enough spoilers. Because the book necessarily contains photographs of all the dust jackets that it discusses, it is quite expensive. But maybe you could borrow it from a library. It is a hardcover. Make sure you get a copy with the dust jacket.

book cover
Title: The Book Blinders
By: John Clute
Publisher: Norstrilia Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
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