Aug 1 2008 6:51pm
Confessions of a book addict

My name is Abi Sutherland, and I am a book addict.

It started when I was a kid, back at Moe's in Berkeley, getting used paperbacks for half off the cover price. I'd go in for a hit of Le Guin or Asimov, and find myself coming out dazed and excited, with a stack of Schmitz and Chalker and only my bus fare left in my pocket. But it was OK. I knew I could stop any time I wanted to.

Then I became older and gainfully employed, and got into the hard stuff: hardcover books, I mean, and new ones at that. And I started reading series not yet complete, so that I would catch up with the authors. Then, of course, I had to have the next May, the next Robinson, the next Grafton, as soon as it came out. In short, I was hooked.

Over time, though I bought books for their content, I came to love them for their form. The feel of a new book in the hands, or the smell of an old one, became as delightful to me as the words inside. That, in turn, led me into the obsessive world of bookbinding, from which I don't expect to ever escape. I'm doomed. But I'm OK with it.

Why am I boring you with my sorry tale? Well, I wasn't given a “beat” to cover on, but I'm claiming this one: books as physical objects. As readers, we interact with them all the time (even eBook addicts tend to have a few dead tree editions), but surprisingly few people know anything about them. I've met people who tune their own cars and compile their own kernels but who can't tell the difference between a perfect bound book and a signature sewn one. And these are matters that make a difference to the price, the value, and the lifespan of your books.

So let me teach you the basics. Later, I'll explain how to use this knowledge to choose which books to buy, to store and care for them, and to anticipate how they will age.

To a book buyer, books can be divided into paperbacks (large format or pocket) and hardcovers. But to the binder, there is a more important division: glued structures versus sewn ones.

Sewn books came first. We've been folding stacks of pages (binders call these signatures) and sewing them together for a millennium and a half, more or less. Books made this way are strong, flexible and durable, but they're also time-consuming to bind, and therefore expensive. Even mechanized versions of the process cost more than gluing.

In the 1800's, people started slicing the folds and gluing the cut ends together at the spine. It's called “perfect binding” (one of the great misnomers of bookbinding!) At first, adhesives tended to dry out and turn brittle after a few years, so early perfect bound books would shed leaves like trees in autumn. Glue chemistry has improved since then, but a perfect bound book is still weaker than a sewn one.

So are perfect bound books evil?  They are certainly worse, structurally, than sewn ones in every regard: you can't open the book as far, they aren't as durable, and they deform slowly over time. But most books aren't kept long enough or read often enough for a glued binding to fail. And perfect binding is also less expensive, which has led to an enormous decrease in the cost of access to literature. For instance, a British mass market copy of Pride and Prejudice in 1908 cost as much as an adult's weekly food budget. Now the same text can be had in the UK for less than the price of a loaf of bread.

Back to real life.  If you're holding a book, how can you tell if it's sewn or glued?

Most people who know a little about books assume that if it has a hard cover, it's sewn, while if it has a soft one it's glued. Sadly, this is no longer true. Though virtually all paperback books since the 1940's have been perfect bound, most hardcovers printed since the 1990's are as well.

What you actually need to do is to look at the tops of the pages where they meet the spine. There may be a little strip of brightly colored cloth there (called a headband). If so, nudge it back a little so you're seeing the top spine corner of the pages themselves.

You will see one of three patterns. (All of the examples below are hardcover books.)

1. The ends of the signatures make little inverted U-shapes against the spine.

Sewn binding at spine

The gaps between the signatures may be filled by adhesive, but the important feature is that the U's are intact. This means the book is made up of signatures and probably sewn. In rare cases, the signatures will be glued together rather than sewn, but either structure is relatively strong.

 (Shown:Agent To the Stars by John Scalzi, Subterranean Press, 2005)

2. The ends of the pages stick vertically into the glue.

Perfect binding at spine

You have a perfect bound book.

 (Shown: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, Ace Science Fiction, 2001)

3. The ends of the signatures make broken inverted U-shapes.

Another glued binding at spine

This is also a glued binding, created by a slightly different process than (2).

(Shown: M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman, HarperCollins, 2007)

Next time: how understanding book structures can give you a glossier coat of hair and make you irresistible to the appropriate sex. more bang for your book-buying buck.  You're on your own about the glossy hair and the irresistibility.

Kerry Dustin
1. rocalisa
This was really fascinating. As a book addict myself, I'm looking forward to more of your posts.

Now I just have to stop myself from rushing downstairs and pulling all my hardcovers off the shelf to investigate the binding. (It's winter; it's cold down there!)
Kerry Kuhn
2. Kerry
Thanks, Abi. That certainly explained why some of my older paperbacks are disintegrating. I wish I could afford to buy all sewn hardcovers, but I have neither the money nor the space to do so.
Abigail Sutherland
3. evilrooster
Kerry @2:
I wish I could afford to buy all sewn hardcovers, but I have neither the money nor the space to do so

At the risk of anticipating my next article, there is also the problem that you don't have the opportunity to do so. Publishers aren't making many sewn books.

It's a pain for readers and collectors. It's even more of a pain for bookbinders, because although it's technically possible to rebind a perfect bound book, it's too much labor for too unsatisfactory a result.

The economic realities of mass market publishing are what they are, unfortunately. But don't pine for the masses of sewn hardbacks you don't own, because they don't actually exist.
Max Kaehn
4. mithriltabby
Hi, Abi!

As addictions go, books aren't that bad. As my stepdad says: Who ever heard of a used drug store?

I've noticed that on some hardcovers, the edges of the pages opposite the binding don't line up. Is this a sign of a particular method of binding?
Abigail Sutherland
5. evilrooster
slothman @4:
Hi there!

As addictions go, yes, books are relatively harmless. They certainly pass the dark alley test ("You are walking through a dark alley late at night and meet a insert substance addict. Are you afraid?")

Quick vocabulary lesson before I go on*: a book has six planes. Front, back and spine are well known. The tops of the pages are the head of the book. Opposite the head is the tail. And opposite the spine is the fore edge.

Assuming this is a new book, I can think of a number of reasons the fore edge of a book might not align.

1. It may be curved, which would show that the book had certain strengthening structural things done to it, known as rounding and (possibly)backing. These are good things, and result in longer lasting books.

2. It may have a stair-step appearance, which means it's probably signature sewn, just not very tightly. This won't make a significant difference to the book's lifespan.

3. It may be ragged, which means that the folds at the outside edges were cut open but not trimmed smooth.** In that case, the fore edge will look a lot like the spine edge on example 3. This is sometimes done to give a slightly more old-fashioned look to the book, referencing times and cultures when books were sold uncut, and everyone had a paper knife to open the pages. It doesn't guarantee that it's signature sewn; our perfect bound copy of Quicksilver has a fore edge like that.

4. If the fore edge is just crooked, then you have a crooked book. Manufacturing fault.

* Note to self: vocabulary would make a good post in and of itself
** Signatures, which are generally 16 pages long, start as a single sheet of paper, printed on both sides and folded up. The folds on all sides can either be cut open or trimmed smooth. Heads and tails are pretty much always trimmed smooth, because otherwise they collect dust and get worn, both bad things.
La Tlönista
6. tlonista
Still wanting to get into bookbinding (after picking up a lovely hand-bound hardcover mini at the last London minicomics thing) and this is very useful, especially the photos!
Pat Knuth
7. Laina
Hi Abi!

I've always considered myself more of a printaholic, since I'll read all four sides of the cereal box if nothing else is available. But given the number of books I own, book addict works, too.
While book addicts pass the dark alley test, I suspect that movers have their own opinions of us (you have how many books and you want me to pack them how???)

Paper going bad drives me at least as crazy as the pages falling out. So many of my paperbacks were printed on paper that was trying to turn brown before it even got to the bookstore.

Looking forward to your next post.
Jeffrey Richard
8. neutronjockey
So Abi...does this make you a pusher if the folks here are admitting to their own bibliophilic weakness?

Book pusher!
Abigail Sutherland
9. evilrooster
I am not a pusher. I'm just an enabler.

The last two moves we've done, we've packed and hauled our own books (Getting movers when you're selling all your furniture and crossing a body of water is bad value for money. Getting movers when you're going half a mile, still with no furniture, is ludicrous.) So I get to roll my eyes at myself!

Paper yellowing is a sad thing. You can minimize it by reducing exposure to sunlight, but there's not much else to be done.
10. sourmanx
Hi Abi!

Being a book addict myself, it's always good to get to know other people with the same addiction.

Strangely enough, I know a lot of people who are also voracious readers, but who don't care much about the physical aspect of the book itself. All they want is the words on the book, not the paper on which they are printed. I find myself on the other end, I love the feel of a good book, especially the smell.

I don't suppose you have any hidden gems on why books smell the way they do? I've tried googling it, but to no success.
eric orchard
11. orchard
I took a course in art school held by an art conservator and it really revealed the beauty of books as objects. I recently acquired a 1911 Rackham illustrated Wagner's Ring cycle with tipped in plates.
I just wanted to say that. And also, to me illustrations make a volume even more precious. Like the others, I'm really forward to more posts by you.
Serge Mailloux
12. SergeBroom
When I finally met Abi last year, we went to Berkeley's F/SF bookstore Change of Hobbit, and she made frequent comments about the physical books, their binding, that sort of stuff. Yes, an adult hooked on books is a sad spectacle.
Serge Mailloux
13. SergeBroom
Sourmanx: "...I love the feel of a good book..."

I especially like the feel of a paperback, far more than that of a hardcover. With a paperback, I literally am getting a big present in a small dense package.
Derek Bizier
14. tke.hijacker
This is exciting I have seen books on book binding (hmmm, now I wonder if they were glued or sewn?) and have never let myself pick one up due to fear of another hobby I do not have time or money for, maybe once i start bringing in a few million a year this will be my next endeavor.

I will for the time being live vicariously through the tales of the book addicts that are posted here. I will have to let this suffice and satiate my longing to start another new hobby.

15. sourmanx
Serge: I expressed myself poorly. When I said a "good" book, I wasn't referring to the quality of the book "object", I was referring to the quality of the book "idea", the actual words that make up the book.

A "good" book, one that I like to read over and over, will always fell good to me, even if is printed on the worst paper and bounded in the worst possible way.
Pat Hayes
16. SCTechSorceress
It's nice to find some fellow book addicts! My habit was acquired at a branch of the New York City Public Library.

Like Laina, I'm also a printaholic, having read more than a few cereal boxes myself, but there is something special about a book.

Storage needs mean that I must buy paperback more often than hardcover (and yet somehow, they are overflowing their room already!)

The words inside a book are truely the treasure, but I must admit to an extra thrill when I find a book that's a little better made than average.
Rich Rennicks
17. RichR
@Serge: I must concur on the subject of 'good' books. I still have a copy of The Eye of the World that I found in a book swap at a hostel in Sydney ten years ago. It was yellowing and spine broken then, and has only got much worse over the years -- the cover has ripped off and pages are now falling out -- but for some reason I haven't been able to part with it. I haven't even upgraded to the hardcover for posterity yet, as I have all the others in the series. I'm not normally so sentimental about my books, but this one has been around the world with me, and it's an absolutely fabulous read, so it's still on the shelf.
Serge Mailloux
18. SergeBroom
Sourmanx... The bottom line is that, no matter what a 'good' book means, we all love books otherwise we wouldn't be posting here.

I've never read anything by C.S.Lewis, but that didn't prevent my loving the movie Shadowland, with Anthony Hopkins as Lewis. At some point, he says something that probably is from one ofhis stories:

"We read to know we're not alone."
Serge Mailloux
19. SergeBroom
RichR @ 17... I don't know if there's any specific book I'm sentimental about, but I still have some of the first paperbacks I bought with my own money almost 40 years ago. Looking at them, you couldn't tell that they had ever been read, because I was so careful, but read them I did. And loved them. And I remember loving them, and how could I send away my paper friends? Especially that Best of Planet Stories anthology of 1975 by Leigh Brackett, or her Eric John Stark novels of that era.
Velma deSelby-Bowen
20. VelmadSB
This is fascinating, and tempts me to develop a new time-and-space-consuming hobby. Right now, I've suppressed the desire by having bespoke journals made for me by a fellow fountain pen geek (thus ensuring that I will have fountain-pen-friendly paper), but this explains a lot about the structure of books, and why some of them last.

(I've a rant about Fawcett paperbacks of the 1970s and 80s, which dissolve upon readings, but I'll save that for later.)
Marshall Vandegrift
21. llasram
Oh, physical artifacts -- how quaint. Soon knowing such things about physical books will be like knowing how to make your own bow-strings. Onward with the e-book revolution!
Abigail Sutherland
22. evilrooster
Ilasram @21:

I don't think the physical book is dead, and I have (among others) Cory Doctorow on my side.

I think that people change much more slowly than you are allowing for. Even if an eBook reader that met the majority of their needs were to appear on the market tomorrow, I suspect that most people over 20 would own paper books for the rest of their lives. There's a lot of emotional attachment to the physical form. And this leaves aside books for writing in, all the books that are uneconomic to digitize, and things to read in environments that aren't good for eBook readers (off the grid, on the beach, in the bathtub).

I expect that eBooks will constitute a growing proportion of book sales over the future, but I also think that they will supplant, rather than replace paper books.

But even if I am completely wrong, even if the book is already obsolete and we are watching its death throes, was that actually an interesting or productive comment to make? Or was it just schoolyard taunting?

Come on, now. If you don't like the content, don't read it. Watch Greg Manchess paint Hellboy, read about Mars, make a relevant comment on a thread that gets you excited.
Sammy Jay
23. Malebolge
Recently moved house, which involved uprooting up many, many books and came across a box with a few of my pre-teen purchases- K.A Applegate's 'Everworld', Goosebumps-era stuff. Books younger than I am. And I mean, granted, I had been living in a pretty humid, book-unfriendly environment, but they were just amazingly yellowed, and the acidity of the paper was easily scented. And I sort of mentally classified them as middle-aged books; not old enough to be lovingly re-bound in hard cover and cracked open reverently from time to time, and not new enough to be picked up and sniffed for that new-book smell.

I like old books. I like new books. I do not like middle-aged books very much.
Marshall Vandegrift
24. llasram
evilrooster: @22

I'm sorry that I came across as taunting. I meant it as a joke, but should have realized such glib sarcasm doesn't work very well as blog-comments. I was drawn into your post by the first few sentences then thrown for a loop by the meat of the content. I respectfully disagree about the future relative importance of p-books vs. e-books, but that isn't really on-topic for this post either. Once again I do apologize.
Dirk Walls
25. dirk
I loved this article also, being a book addict for life.

*flashes book gang signs*

As far a ebooks making real books obsolete, I think one thing that will keep the real books around is it sorta sucks to give an ebook as a present, especially a downloaded ebook.

And I just don't see how it would be nearly as cool to have a kid sitting on your lap while you read an ebook with them as opposed to a good old fashioned paper book.

Will ebooks ever have 'pop-up' book technology? :P

Looking forward to your future posts about books.
26. Tim May
I seem to have a fair number of paperbacks bound with intact signatures. They seem to be mainly academic texts, or at least non-fiction, though. Maybe because they tend to be larger books? My 1988 Grafton copy of Le Guin's Always Coming Home is, though.

As to ebooks: barring some catastrophe, it seems inevitable to me that they'll eventually replace paper for most purposes. How long "eventually" is, though, I don't know. Decades at least, & maybe that long even for the process to really get under way.
Abigail Sutherland
27. evilrooster

It's OK. Just the usual web problem of sarcasm not carrying. Sorry if I stomped on you too hard.

Let me gather my physical book posse with a few more posts, and then maybe we can run a thread on the subject.
Abigail Sutherland
28. evilrooster
Tim May:

Most of the fiction paperbacks I have owned with intact signatures were Penguin editions from the 1930's and 40's.

Like you, I have later non-fiction examples, such as my current Dutch textbook (Nederlands in Actie, Boer and Lijmbach, printed in 2006). I suspect the academic and reference markets run to a different pricing model, and prioritize the ability to open repeatedly over a low price.

The Le Guin book is an interesting data point. The latest sewn hardcover fiction book I own is Changing Planes in the UK edition, printed in 2004. I have often wondered if she has some affinity with sewn bindings? She certainly would have the clout to insist on them with her publishers.
29. Tim May
Maybe. The other paperbacks of hers I have are perfect bound, but they're mostly A-formats from the 70s. While Always Coming Home is a... royal-with-another-quarter-inch-trimmed-off-the-height* trade paperback. (Another interesting thing about that edition is that the cover has the title set in a unicase font.)

Looking at more of my paperbacks, I have one Penguin old enough (volume 2 of Graves' The Greek Myths). Old enough to have the spine text reading up instead of down, too.

Based on the small sample in my library, binding paperbacks with intact signatures might be more common in Japan than the US & UK. The one other fiction paperback I've found is Murakami's Norwegian Wood, and there are several others from Japanese publishers which are small-format paperbacks, even if non-fiction.**

I don't know how the academic publishing pricing model works - it sometimes looks like "pick a high price out of the air & trust that libraries will still order it" - but I imagine print runs are generally smaller, which might mean there's less pressure to minimize the cost per volume.

All this is really making me want to go through my library again and catalogue the binding details. (I ought to redo it anyway; my current spreadsheet includes paper format but not year or publisher. And then there's the idea I had of weighing the books and measuring their thicknesses, so I could quantify my collection by mass or length of shelf space...)

* I think. Paper sizes confuse me.
** Also one book published in Thailand, but that's academic (a textbook of Classical Tibetan), so it's hard to conclude much from it.

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