Judging Books By Their Covers

Though the proverb warns against judging books by their covers, on Monday 3 November researchers from across the Faculty of Arts at the University of Bristol came together to do just that in a workshop organized by the Books research cluster.

A packed programme saw speakers from the Library’s Special Collections and from the Schools of Modern Languages, Humanities, and Arts present on title pages, bindings, book covers and frontispieces dating from the fifteenth through to the twenty-first century. The workshop set out to explore the different ways that books have made a first impression on readers and bookbuyers throughout the ages, and to investigate what questions – about book production, design, advertising, readership, and reception – it might be possible to ask by judging a book by its cover.


The afternoon began by focusing on the early modern title page. Rhiannon Daniels (Italian) began the afternoon by reflecting on some of the questions about titles and title pages that her research on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century editions of Boccaccio’s Decameron has prompted, before Martin White (Theatre) explored what clues the title page of the 1621 play The Witch of Edmondton by ‘William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford, &c.’, gave about its composition, performance, revival, and publication. False and misleading imprints were the subject of three presentations: Sebastiaan Verweij (English) examined the evolving imprints on the 1638 title page of the first sermon by John Donne to be pirated; Jenny Batt (English) considered the ways in which the title page of The Thresher’s Miscellany (1730) invited readers to recognize its misleading imprint; and John McTague (English) showed how the title pages of The Foundling Hospital for Wit (1743/4) gave clues to the way the suppositious family of booksellers named Lion (or Lyon) reacted to the possibility of censorship. Alice Colombo (Modern Languages) followed, exploring how different editions of Gulliver’s Travels produced across the eighteenth century exploited the generic conventions of travel narratives and chapbooks.

The second session of the afternoon saw a focus on different kinds of title page image. Natalia Gogolitsyna (Russian) explored how, by containing images of pan-European literary figures, the title page border of an edition of Pushkin’s works from 1907 sought to place him within a particular literary tradition, before Edward Forman (French) considered how the frontispieces of late seventeenth-century French plays sought to convey the action of those plays. Michael Richardson, one of two speakers from Special Collections, then offered an insight into some of the unique holdings of the library by examining the seventeenth-century binding of the presentation copy of William Salmon’s Pharmacopoeia Bateana. Sam Matthews (English) also explored a unique item, Elizabeth Reynold’s ‘Medley’ (1817), a manuscript album with a title page that deliberately and creatively reworked the conventions of print.

In the final session of the afternoon attention shifted to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Hannah Lowery (Special Collections) and David Trigg (History of Art) provided a welcome insight into the riches of the Penguin Archive, housed in Special Collections. Hannah reminded us of the archive’s potential for the study of children’s literature by speaking about some of the titles contained within the Puffin Books non-fiction series, while David considered the iconic design of books from the Penguin Modern Painters series. The final two speakers examined the different guises in which a single book might appear. Bradley Stephens (French) considered the many different faces of Hugo’s Les Misérables and Helena Hoyle (Classics) focused on the different covers of Le Guin’s Lavinia (2008), with both papers prompting reflection on how it might be possible to measure the impact of a particular cover on a particular readership at any one time.

In judging books by their covers, these wide-ranging presentations illuminated the continuities and practices across a broad historical period and between different countries, different media and different technologies, and threw up a whole host of questions – and answers – about the ways book coverings are used and read by book producers, book sellers, readers, and researchers.

For more information about the Books Cluster at the University of Bristol – including about forthcoming events organized by the research cluster, contact the cluster organizers Rhiannon Daniels and Jenny Batt.

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