"Don't judge a book by its cover" -- that probably the first maxim learned when it comes to books, but most people care less about about books than they do people, they usually use it as a warning against prejudice, against judging people by the colors of their skins, the state of their clothes, the manner of their speech, the beliefs of their religions. However, since we are self-proclaimed bookaholics, we'll set aside all the fluffy, huggy, kumbaya urges and stick to books.
While true bibliomaniacs can derive a great deal of pleasure from a book's cover, the feel of it, the smell of it, the beauty of its craft, and the intricacy of its engraving and embossing. We can enjoy a book's cover, may even purchase a book based solely on the beauty of its cover, but at the same time we understand that the content may be drivel, sheer period melodrama, maybe nothing more than some shop girl tale (a genre popular in the 19th Century) or a rugged youth-falls-into-wealth tale. But, as I wrote, a book can be collectible simply based on its cover, whether for craftsmanship or subject matter. If you come across such a dilemma during one of your book safaris, remember that the cover is only part of the book, that there are other portions of the books to consider. And to find other book treasures you will have to look in other places, some of them quite surprising; and some of these secret places to look when scouting books might put you on edge.
If you come across an old book with gilt or marbled edges, something you might want to try is moving the pages back so they form a 30- to 45-degree angle. If you are holding a fore-edge book, you will suddenly see revealed a previously hidden painting, illustrating something about the book, the author, or, sometimes, even a panorama of the city in which the book was printed. In the book to the left, the pages are held back to reveal a nautical scene. When the book is returned to its normal closed state, the painting vanishes,
In the book to the right we see a terrestrial scene revealed when the pages are held back, held in place by two highly finished sticks, secured by bolts and wingnuts. You may ask if this in anyway damages the book. The answer is, no it does not, but you still have to do this gently, spreading the pages back only until the image appears. The books you see here are displayed in standard fashion; these particular books are from the rare books collection of the San Diego Public Library, and displayed under glass cases, illuminated by special lights. If you plan on building such a collection, this is the best way to display them, to protect the books, the colors, and the images. Although it can be fairly expensive to build up a collection your own, it also possible yo pay much less...after all, the image is hidden, so the owner may not know what he has and you can just buy it as an old book. As a Book Snake, I do not see a moral dilemma here, but it's a decision you have to make for yourself.
Above, is a nice example of a fore-edge book which reveals a high detailed panorama of a busy 19th Century seaport. Collecting this "hidden treasure" books can be fun, and, who knows, you might be the one to discover a nice addition to your private collection; or you could become a patron of the arts by donating it to the library or museum nearest you...just make sure it has a rare book collection.
On a final note, here's a very short video showing how to gently reveal the the treasures hidden in a fore-edge book:
Thanks for much of the material in this blog must be given to Richard Crawford, the Special Collections Librarian and Rare Books Curator at the San Diego Public Library.