Rare Books
Book Collecting Guide

Books as art


A collection doesn’t have to be based around a particular author or subject matter, books themselves can be things of beauty and many collections are assembled because the books are presented as pieces of art. Art and literature have been closely linked for centuries, and artists can ply their trade on the cover, the binding and even the edges of the pages.

Artistic bindings

The binding of a book describes the type of material which is used to make the upper (front) and lower (back) covers. The bookbinder's job is very functional in that they must cover the book in some type of material for the protection of the book block, but some binders take on this task with such a creative gusto that collectors are attracted to their bindings above all else. Books bound by some famous bookbinders are particularly collectible.

Fore-edge paintings

The edges of a book are often ignored when it comes to added decoration. Sometimes gilt or stain is applied or perhaps the edges are left uncut for a more rustic feel but rarely is more thought given to the lowly edge. That was until around the 16th century when an Italian artist named Cesare Vecellio (cousin of celebrated Renaissance painter Titian) began to use the fore-edge of books as a canvas.

The idea caught on and artists began to improve on Vecellioï's techniques discovering that if one painted on the slight inner edges of the pages, and then gilded or marbled the outside page edges, the scene would be undetectable when the book was closed, and only reveal itself when the pages were fanned slightly, creating a disappearing, re-appearing masterpiece.

Examples of fore-edge paintings

Paper engineering

Paper engineering is the act of folding, gluing and cutting paper to create a book which displays its text and imagery in a unique way. One of the most common tasks of a paper engineer is creating pop-ups and moveables. In these cases, the designer creates three dimensional images that move off the page as the book opens or as pull tabs are used.

Another fine example of paper engineering is when the book’s author/designer cuts out sections of the book’s leaves, cover or even entire text block to add to the overall feel of the book. This process is called die-cutting and one of the most stunning examples of this is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes. Foer created Tree of Codes by cutting pieces of text from his favourite book, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, to create a new story out of the existing text. A more typical example of die-cuts involve cut out shapes in the front cover to reveal an interior page such as with this copy of I by Stephen Dixon.

Cover art

Some books simply just have beautiful covers or dust jackets, and it’s very worthy to collect books for those reasons alone. This is a huge category of collecting – you could favor beautiful cloth cover designs, books with attractive dust wrappers or paperbacks (think of the early Penguin books) with memorable artwork.

Cover art may not be the most ‘literary’ of collecting criteria but you must collect what you love. Whether you like the colourful designs of 1950s’ science fiction, vintage dames of pulp mysteries, beautiful embroidered covers, gilt-embossed covers, post-modern abstract designs, the work a single illustrator or clever use of photography, there is a huge array of cover art to choose from.


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