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.


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