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George Salter and the Art of the Dust Jacket

An urban legend tells the tale of a successful book collector who hires a new housekeeper. Leaving her to her duties, he departs on a weekend holiday. Upon his return he discovers the dust jackets missing from his valuable collection of Ernest Hemingway novels. When he questions his housekeeper about their disappearance, she smiles and nods, explaining, "Yes, I threw those old paper covers away. Now see how nice those books look."

Fact or fiction, this story illustrates two points: first, dust jackets by their very nature are meant to be ephemeral; and second, when retained on the book (particularly a first edition, first printing), a dust jacket greatly increases a book's value.

But a dust jacket serves another purpose: aesthetics. The jacket of a book is meant to entice, much like a candy wrapper seduces you into buying the bar of chocolate it contains. In the case of dust jackets, aesthetics is tied as much to commerce (advertising) as to art. In their original incarnation, dust jackets were the wrapper you threw away in order to access the contents more easily. After all, that was why you purchased the book, to enjoy its contents. What did the wrapper matter? But to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we live in an age of surfaces, where appearance is everything and that which is scarce is granted great value, worthy of being coveted. Where once we threw the wrapper away, the wrapper is now sometimes more highly prized than that which it covered. Art and commerce intertwine; art has encountered a sad decline.

George Salter (1897–1967) was a German who began designing books in 1927 for the publisher Die Schmiede. By the time Hitler came to power, Salter had become well enough established in his profession that, when he arrived in America in 1934, he was not without commissions from New York publishing houses. From the time he arrived in this country until the year he died, Salter created some of the most astonishing, evocative, mesmerizing jackets ever to grace a book.

Dreamy watercolors, primitive woodcuts, delicate airbrushing, unique calligraphy — he used all of these to create a mood that would make a reader curious to open the book and investigate its contents. Salter became a master of his craft, designing hundreds of dust jackets for books that have gone on to become recognized classics.

His most notable designs include Kafka's The Trial, George Mandel's Flee the Angry Strangers (considered by some to be the first Beat novel), Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Graham Greene's This Gun for Hire, Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine, John Hersey's The Wall, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and many more that have stood the test of time.

Though, as an artist employed to produce, Salter did see a fair share of the books he designed disappear, no matter how brilliant his work. Who today reads The Fifth Seal by Mark Aldanov, Castle Garac by Nicholas Monsarrat, or Possess Me Not by Fan Nichols? To see any of these books, successful or not, clad in a jacket designed by Salter gives the impression that here is something unique, something that can tantalize us enough to open to that first page and see if this book is worthy of our time.

The modern dust jacket has lost something in terms of craftsmanship in the effort to keep costs low and productivity high. Cut and paste methods, slapdash graphics, garish hues, deceptive simplicity, or appropriating a work of art either from canvas or photography seem to be the norm of modern book design. Today most of the visually stunning jackets can be found in the realm of science fiction and romance novels with their muscle bound heroes and voluptuous heroines to inspire the imagination. General fiction has taken a hard hit.

There is never enough time to read all the books we hope to read, and because there is always something waiting to be discovered or rediscovered, the well of lost books continues to fill. When next you wander the aisles, searching for another book, one that catches your eye, know that all around you there is art. The art of the book itself. And somewhere there is a book, covered in a jacket that has torn a bit, chipped a little at the corners, perhaps even soiled. But the vivid colors catch your eye, the lettering of the title is something you've never seen, and off the side at the bottom you might just see the tiny signature of the artist who designed the jacket. Salter.

÷ ÷ ÷

Christopher Johnson has worked for 12 years in independent new and used bookstores, including a month-long stint at New York's famed Strand. You can currently find him in the Blue Room at the Burnside Powell's, sweating over the letter S.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Atlas Shrugged
    Used Mass Market $3.95
  2. The Wall New Trade Paper $24.00
  3. Bread and Wine (Signet Classics)
    New Mass Market $7.95

  4. Absalom, Absalom! (Vintage... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  5. The Trial: A New Translation Based...
    Used Trade Paper $6.50

One Response to "George Salter and the Art of the Dust Jacket"

    blm July 2nd, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    Fine retrospective; it's also worth noting that Salter, in his Weimar days, designed the original jacket for one of the towering works of German modernism, Alfred Döblin's _Berlin Alexanderplatz_ (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Doeblin_berlin_alexanderplatz.jpg ).

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