I found this interesting article at The New York Observer via Richard Minsky's new book cover blog: The New Thing: Books Without Jackets. While I don't totally agree with the idea that dust jackets are completely disposable--for one, they protect the boards (which was their original function, I think)--I find it encouraging that publishers have realized that a dust jacket doesn't have to be the only way to decorate a book.
Of course, as the article points out, this isn't really a new trend. Aside from the fact that way back in the early days of publishing pretty much all books had decorated boards (with dust jackets to protect them while on the shop shelves), some more recent publishers have been experimenting with dust-jacket-less books. McSweeney's is the one the article points out, but I've seen it from time to time from other publishers. The one that comes to mind is The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke. In a world of flashy dust jackets, this grey jacketless book with its simple floral design stands out as elegant. Graceful, even.
And something else that's brought to mind: Every time I bring home a new book, one of the first things I do is peek under the dust jacket. Usually, there's nothing much there, except maybe the title stamped in gold on the spine. "We’re used to the jacket covering something that's ugly," as they said in the article. But every once in a while, especially on older books, the dust jacket hides treasure. Take the battered dust jacket off the facsimile of the Kelmscott Chaucer (World Pubilshing Company edition) and you'll find the blind stamping from the original Doves Bindery binding reproduced on the front cover. For a (slightly) more recent example (1986), carefully fold away the jacket from Merlin's Booke by Jane Yolen, the SteelDragon Press edition, and you find Tom Canty's cover design beautifully stamped in gold and blind.
It's a lovely thing that publishers are bringing back books with printed and stamped boards instead of dust jackets, but what I'd really love is to have them bring back that excitement of discovering what lies under a dust jacket. Bring back books with plain jackets hiding a nicely-designed cover underneath. Bring back the anticipation of discovery. That's what I'd like.