The Book Blinders

Annals of Vandalism at the British Library: A Necrology

by John Clute

The first known dust-jacket to appear on a book in the UK dates from 1819. It was primitive. But over the decades publishers came to realize the importance of dust-jackets in conveying what’s been called “the mind of the book”.

Long before the end of the 19th century, illustrated dust-jackets had become common. Their front and back flaps were soon filled with ads, bios, synopses. Theatres of entry into the new. Sadly, almost none of these jackets have survived. An irreplaceable record of our culture at work and play was expunged.

The one central institution primarily responsible for this centuries-long vandalism is the British Library. From its inception, under several names, it maintained for 150 years an invariant policy of removing dust-jackets from every book it accessioned, and destroying almost all of them.

Millions of these records have been bonfired: innumerable conversations between the World and the Book gone forever.

The British Library, an institution founded as a custodian of our civilization, has failed us. In 2024, we can no longer afford to starve.

In The Book Blinders, distinguished critic, editor and novelist John Clute looks at 115 books whose jackets have survived out here in the real world. They escaped the burning. Each has a story to tell..

Available from all bookstores and online. Aust: $79.90; UK £55.90; USA $69.00.