Where "Coverless" and "Foxed" are Positive Selling Features
By Michael Stillman
When is a book more desirable after its covers have been torn from the pages? When are terms such as "foxed" and "faded" a positive selling feature? Welcome to the new world of books as art. Wait long enough and just about anything can get turned upside down.
Books have been collected as objects of art at least as far back as Jean Grolier, who put together his library almost five centuries ago. In those days books did not come with covers. That was left to the owner, and Grolier responded by binding his in fine leather, with ornaments, gilding and the like. For Grolier it was more than just an attempt to make his house look nice. It was a reflection of how he valued books and the knowledge contained within.
In the 19th century, the concept of fine press books began to take root. Printers such as the legendary Kelmscott began to produce decorative books, works of art straight off the press. The fine presses would generally pick classic titles, but their editions, usually printed in short runs, were really meant more to be appreciated as physical objects, such as paintings, than to be read. If you wanted to read the book, you probably bought a standard edition so you wouldn't deface the fine copy. The wealthier collectors of books as art purchased titles from fine presses such as Kelmscott or Grabhorn, those without much money might opt for a collectible edition from the Franklin Mint. Usually such collectors had an appreciation for the author's writing, or at least believed they ought to, even if they never actually read the work. Still, their intention was to place something of beauty and erudition on their shelves.
In the past decade we have seen the development of books as art taken to another level, one where the text became totally irrelevant. This was the "books by the foot" phenomenon. These are books that are purchased by size, a foot of books, a yard of books, whatever. You don't even know what titles you will receive. The only promise is that the covers will look nice and you won't get two copies of the same book. There is no pretense of the buyer having any interest in the content. Any thought of interest in the content clearly disappears when the buyer does not know or even care what books he is buying, though stacking such books on your shelf may imply an attempt to convince others of an interest in their content.
Now this concept has been taken a step further. Restoration Hardware, a highly respected name in the field of fixtures and such for older homes, is offering "antique coverless book bundles." These are bundles of books with their covers missing ("liberated from their covers"), tied together with string. It is what you would do to bring them to a recycling center. They are what the trade would refer to as "reading copies" (or some dealers as "...otherwise very good"). Noting that these bundles are "rich with texture and intrigue," Restoration Hardware explains, "Liberated from their covers, stitched and bound with jute twine, the foxed and faded pages of old books become objêts d'art." This is the first time I've seen "foxed" used as a compliment. "Foxy," yes, but not "foxed." Nevertheless, that little roof symbol over the "e" in "objêts d'art" seals the deal that this is something of high class.
Maybe I shouldn't be put off by these bundles. In these days of electronic readers, perhaps we should be thankful for any use someone finds for printed texts. And, maybe this isn't all that different from what Grolier, or Kelmscott or Grabhorn did. It is just taken to a different level. We traveled down the road from pre-washed to pre-faded jeans, and finally, to "new" pairs that already had holes in them. These books are sort of like the jeans that come with holes already there. Bad is good. One word that does not jump out in my mind to describe either these bundles or holy jeans is "authentic." The traditionalist in me says that old books missing their covers should get that way from use, not because some big cutting machine sliced off their covers. Still, with millions of old books out there that circumstances have now made virtually worthless, maybe it is good that they now have one more chance to find their way into people's homes. Frankly, my book collection just got a lot more valuable.
If you would like to purchase some coverless books for your shelves, they are available for $29 per bundle. Click here to order yours.