content by

Abigail Sutherland

A visual dictionary of book terms

As with every other science, the first thing you must learn is to call everything by its proper name.
—Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons

Move the thing! Um…that other thing!
—Vizzini, trying to give orders in The Princess Bride

That which we do not name, we cannot discuss. And like everything else, books have their own specialized vocabulary. Reading the comments on my first post here, I realized that some readers might benefit from a small visual dictionary of book-related terms. I’ll stick to features you’re likely to find on ordinary commercial book, but skip the ones that everyone generally knows (“paperback”, for instance).

I apologize in advance for the lack of Latin terms.

[Click here to be less like Vizzini and more like the Vicomte de Valmont.]

The six key terms for talking about a book are the six planes of its rectangular prism. They are derived from anatomical vocabulary.

Front The front of the book is defined by the cover that the reader opens.
Back The back is the side opposite the front.
Head The head is the top of the book when it is held to be read.
Tail The tail is the bottom of the book when it is held to be read. Books are generally stored with their tails resting on the shelf.
Spine The spine is the vertical edge of the book where all of the pages are connected.

Western books generally have the spine on the left hand side of the front cover. Japanese and Arabic books both tend to have the spine on the right.

Fore edge The fore edge is the vertical edge of the book opposite the spine, where the pages are unconnected.


Once you can negotiate the geography of a book, a few more terms may be useful for discussing its features.

Case and book block The inner part of the book, consisting of all the pages, is known as the book block.

The sheets of paper that make up the pages of a book are called the leaves.

The hard cover of most commercially bound books is known as the case. Hand bound books may not be cased in, but that’s another world from what we’re looking at here.

The hard front and back covers of a book are called the boards. This dates back to when they were made of wood.

Endpapers The pages at the beginning and end of a book are called the endpapers or the endsheets. They are frequently colored, patterned or marbled.

The endsheet that is attached to the board is referred to as the pastedown.

The endsheet that is free of the boards is called the flyleaf.

Squares The edges of the cover that extend beyond the edges of the book block in a hardcover book are called the squares.
French groove The groove along the spine edge of the covers is called either the French groove or the American groove. (They are, for all intents and purposes, the same thing.) The groove is formed by the gap between the spine edge of the board and the spine, and forms the hinge that allows the book to open.

Some older styles of hand bound books don’t have them. Just so you know.

Backs and headbands There are two kinds of spines.

A book where the spine cover is attached to the spine of the book block is said to have a tight back or a flexible binding. Most paperbacks have tight backs.

A book where the spine cover is not attached to the spine of the book block is said to have a hollow back. Most hard cover books have these.

The colorful strip at the spine edge of the book block is called a headband. The upper one shown is sewn onto the book; the lower one is glued on.

Quarter binding A book with leather or cloth on the spine and a weaker covering material (usually paper) everywhere else is said to have a quarter binding.
Half binding A book with leather or cloth on the spine and corners and a weaker covering material elsewhere has a half binding.

(Books with the same material all over have full bindings, but that term is generally only used of leather.)

Now you can amaze your friends with your astounding book-related knowledge! Go forth and describe books.

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.

[More below the fold…]

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.