Front matters

Front matters

Phil Patton on the little-known history of a book’s title page:

I hadn’t stopped to consider that title pages had a history. Of course they do, and it is a long one. In many ways title pages were book covers before covers. The dust cover is a very recent concept, going back to the turn of the 20th century, when it was conceived for marketing and display in the shop window. For most of the prior history of the book, the cover was custom, added by the owner after purchase or generic in design. The title page was the prelude to the opera, the curtain raiser for the reader. Bearing the title, the author and the publisher, the title page emerged as a kind of second cover to the book. It arose with printing as a protective page, but soon came to play another role: It announced the pride of the printer, an increasingly important figure, who added his colophon or maker’s mark.

Books never used to have a title page at all:

“Early printed books often followed the form of a manuscript and had no title page,” according to the National Gallery exhibit [where Patton learned of this history]. But “in the 1460s printers began including a blank page at the beginning of the book, possibly as a means to protect the text.” As printing spread from Germany to Italy, where the Venetians took the lead by around 1500, the title page came into its own. A 1505 edition of Ovid illustrates how “the title has moved to its own page.” A red and black title page of a Plutarch, printed in Venice, 1516, suggests how “as the title page became a promotional and marketing tool, more attention was focused on its design.”

But then:

Title pages have always marked a threshold, a transition from the “real world” to the world of the book. Electronic versions of books, on our Kindles or iPads, may require such transition even more. They may include whole title sequences, with moving images, like film company logos or video clips, to signal the passage from the world of motion to the quiet, inanimate world of words and letters.

Agreed. Without the title page transition, there’s a hard separation between my context and the one the author is setting (although I’ve been fascinated with some authors’ decisions to do away with title pages altogether). The front matters, and no matter what its history, its purpose is to transition us to the other world of the book, no matter what its form.