In defiance of the old adage, some of us really do prefer to judge a book by its cover.

Of course, it is all a matter of personal taste. I am not, for instance, drawn to covers on which the author's name is more prominent than the title. Nor am I interested in books whose covers are illustrated with stills from film or TV adaptations, which seem to me vulgar. Nor am I keen on gold lettering or embossing, which are perhaps meant to appeal to those more interested in consuming boxes of cheap chocolates than reading anything worthwhile.

You may call it snobbery and you may well be right. For not only do I often judge books by their covers, I likewise judge people who I spot reading them. Undoubtedly it is one of my many failings.

Loading article content

Dust jackets, which are wrapped round hardbacks, date back to the early decades of the 19th century when they were usually discarded, which many bibliophiles deem a crime worthy of corporal punishment. They came into their own, however, in the 20th century, when they were elevated to an art form. Often great artists were employed to provide illustrations, working in tandem with the author of the book, as Sidney Nolan did with Patrick White.

Such jackets are collectible in themselves, as anyone who has tried to sell a book secondhand will attest. Indeed, the value of a first edition will vary wildly according to the condition of the dust jacket. If it has one wee tear or a scarring tea stain or – heaven forfend! – is missing altogether, the price offered will plummet like Jimmy Savile's reputation.

As the name suggests, dust jackets were originally intended to protect books, though how much protection they were able to afford is debatable. Their principle function nowadays is to sell books, making them stand out in shops where readers are spoiled for choice. Hence the tendency of jackets to glow luminously in the dark like an alarm clock, which advertising and marketing executives can probably demonstrate has been proven scientifically to boost sales.

There is nothing new in this. Publishing has long been an industry where art and commerce are inseparable bedfellows. Sometimes, though, the latter works to the former's advantage. This was the case in the mid-19th century when publishers decorated the boards of books with illustrations. In an era that rejoices in all things "vintage", these are much sought after.

One prominent producer of them was Blackie & Son, the Glasgow publisher, which operated for almost two centuries, from the beginning of the 19th century to the end of the 20th. It was Walter Blackie who in 1902 commissioned Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design the Hill House at Helensburgh, in whose library are many fine examples of the publisher's work.

But decorating boards is no longer the rule. Alasdair Gray is one of the few contemporary authors whose books have distinctive boards, which is another reason why they are so coveted. In Gray's vision, they are part of an aesthetic whole. For him, a book is not only a purveyor of ideas and entertainment (and good prose) but is in itself a beautiful object.

The Folio Society is rare among modern publishers in maintaining the tradition of illustrated boards. None of its books has dust jackets and nor are they missed. Of recent volumes, I especially admired Abigail Rorer's illustrations for Jack London's The Call Of The Wild and Lyndon Hayes's for William Trevor's Beyond The Pale And Other Stories.

As John Sutherland notes in Folio, The Folio Society's magazine, the heyday of the art of book illustration was Victorian. "Illustration," adds Sutherland, "does not merely ornament. It adds a dimension of interpretation." It would be nice to think other publishers might like to follow The Folio Society's example, especially those who believe that, in the age of the utilitarian Kindle, the future of hardbacks rests on producing books that are not just a joy to read, but also to have and to hold and to keep.