Discoveries | Newberry


One of the things I mention from time to time is the phenomenon of books without covers. I don’t mean books without dust jackets: that’s a matter of mere annoyance, especially in cases of, say, that first edition of The Great Gatsby (worth roughly the price of a handful of rubies in the jacket.) I refer to books which have had the covers removed through violence or neglect.

I have made reference to the concept of “stripping”, when booksellers would send the front covers of unsold paperback books to the publisher for a refund. IF the bookseller then sold the rest of the book for a nickel, this was held to be illegal, and otherwise not nice, and the Book Fair quite virtuously declines to put these out for sale. (Besides which, we dislike being nickel and dimed all weekend long.)

Yet, when you come to do your shopping in July, you WILL find books which are lacking front or back covers, or both. Is our virtue as adaptable as that of a Chicago politician, or are there other factors at work?

If you want to be that impolite about it, the answer is yes. First off, if we can get more than a nickel for them, we are going to put out coverless books. Second, hardcover books were NOT stripped, so that aspect of legality is irrelevant.

Here, for example, is a story about life in early California called Jericho Road. It is by an author named John Habberton, largely forgotten now though he had one of the bestselling books in American history with his novel Helen’s Babies. Most of his books are NOT worth a stack of rubies, so why should this copy of his book, which had one of those special deluxe leather bindings which is now falling to bits and lacks the front cover entirely, not to mention several loose pages, be up on the Collector’s table at so proper and austere an institution as the Newberry Book Fair?

It’s because somebody has pasted a souvenir into the book: a letter written by Mr. Habberton just after publication. I cannot actually read Mr. Habberton’s handwriting (a lot of really great writers had this problem) but it is, nonetheless, a letter from a bestselling author of a century ago, and worthy of some attention.

Children’s books are especially liable to losing covers and pages. Yet this collection of turn of the century fairy tales, Everwhen Stories, is worthy of some attention, too. It seems that the company which published the book, Reilly and Britton, publisher of the Wizard of Oz books, had the stories illustrated by John R. Neill, who also illustrated many of those Oz books. His work is avidly collected, and Everwhen Stories seems to be a fairly rare object. Maybe the stories are even worth reading. In any case, cover or no cover, the book is collectible.

THIS volume is apparently of mighty important, denuded of covers though it is. The Encyclopedia of Chicago claims it is a sign of a major shift in American culture, and it is available in plenty of reprints. I cannot find many other copies of the 1874 original. It is a collection of sermons, possibly one of the most traditional non-collectible types of book in the whole world of books. And yet these sermons are the ones that saw David Swing, pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, brought up before the synod on charges of heresy. The publicity which resulted, says the encyclopedia, showed that religious innovation was moving out of New England and into the younger states. (He is still controversial today; the Internet boasts at least one modern sermon full of true facts to show he was obviously completely wrong.)

I’ll have that out for sale, even though it no longer has any covers at all. It will probably not sit anywhere near this copy of Dr. Swapus, a pornographic novel which sells for $200 if it HAS a front cover, which this one lacks. It may have been stripped, but more likely it was torn off and framed by some radical Presbyterian. If you come to the sale and buy both these books, I will probably mention you in a blog. These stories need to be covered.

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