As we know, books are furnished with a number of different paratexts – material, textual, and visual. It is hard to imagine a book without a title that identifies the text, or a material format that gives the text its physical existence. If these paratexts are lost, also the text itself loses its identity and might even disappear altogether. Not all paratexts, though, threaten a book’s existence if they happen to vanish. Indeed, publishers have stocked their books with paratexts that are not even expected to last forever – and therefore they have not been bound into a book. Dustjackets are probably the most notorious of these paratexts, but they are certainly not the only paratext that has been prone to get lost as soon as a book has been purchased. Part of a historian’s craft is to cope with lost and destroyed sources, gaps, blanks, and incomplete sets of evidence. For book historians these lost paratexts cause constant trouble not only because so little is usually known about them, but also because they are part of the complex web of cultural meanings that make books what they are. Dustjackets, for instance, are crucial entryway paratexts that may impact a book’s success and influence its textual reception. Hence, it is not hard to understand why book historians get so excited whenever they discover paratexts that were thought to be lost for good.
Dustjackets have been treated as throw-away-products, even when their cover designs would have granted them status as an artwork. Because of the scarcity of survived dustjackets, all we can say about their origins is that their use began to spread during the nineteenth century and that their initial function was to protect books from dust and dirt. Quickly, however, publishers recognized their usefulness in marketing, and since then they have belonged to a publishers’ marketing toolkit – even when publishers have been promoting scholarly literature. Librarians, though, especially in academic institutions have not shown too much mercy for dustjackets. As soon as books have entered university libraries, they have tended to mutate from colorful objects to stoutly looking monographs that bear no resemblance with their earlier visual appearance. In other words, when a book has been stripped off from its dustjacket, it has been stripped off also from the visual identity publishers have wanted to give to it. I certainly do not intend to point the finger at librarians and libraries here, for dustjackets have not had a much better survival rate elsewhere either. Readers have been equally ruthless: once a dustjacket has done its work, that is grabbed a reader’s attention and persuaded him to purchase the book, it has been discarded. Only the current fashion of organizing a bookcase according to a carefully planned color scheme may rescue these colorful paratexts from disappearing since the covers they veil tend to lack the much appreciated design feature that dustjackets have.
A dustjacket is not the only paratext that has had a tendency to disappear. The different promotional materials that publishers have attached to books have shared its fate. At least since the nineteenth century, books have provided an attractive platform for marketing a range of goods. In Victorian Britain it was common to find the front and back matter of popular novels promoting soap and other household items. In scholarly literature the commercials focused mostly on books: flyleaves, publishers’ catalogues at the back, and loose sheets promoted books that readers might find interesting. Understandably the unbound ads were likely to be thrown away, but also the catalogues and brochures at the back of a book were often removed whenever a book had to be rebound.
The extreme rarity of the unbound book prospectuses from the nineteenth century renders them genuine paratextual gems. I discovered such a treasure for the very first time only a few weeks ago when both of the volumes of Oliver Elton’s Frederick York Powell: A Life (Oxford University Press, 1906), held in the National Library of Finland, still contained the prospectus the publisher had slipped into them. There was an obvious reason for their survival: the books had not interested anyone before me and I could progress through the volumes only by cutting open the still uncut pages.
All this may appear as a high level of paratext geekiness, but the two prospectuses I discovered are extremely valuable for understanding the marketing strategies of an academic publishing house a century ago. How were history books presented to customers? What were the qualities that sold histories and were therefore accentuated in the commercials? These specific four-page long prospectuses advertised two books: the first prospectus promoted Origines Islandicae that York Powell had edited together with Gudbrand Vigufsson, and the second one introduced Logan Pearsall Smith’s The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton. The topic and its originality and significance were explained by citing the prefaces and the content was clarified by printing the list of contents. The value of Smith’s book was further underlined by quoting favorable reviews in Spectator, the Times, Nation, and Scotsman.
These two prospectuses are a valuable insight into the history of academic publishing, but they are also causing me some unexpected footnote problems: how should I refer to material that is unique, located in a specific repository, yet not catalogued or stored in an official archival collection? And how to compose a footnote knowing that it links my text to a source that may or may not exist any longer because of its nature as something that is both part and not-part of a specific book?