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Friday, January 29, 2010

How to open a book

Cataloging books the other day, I came across an 1890s multivolume set called Messages and Papers of the Presidents. Inside one of the volumes was a slip of printed paper with a bookbinder's message: How to Open a Book.

The set was published by the Government Printing Office, so they are the likely source of this piece of paper, which reprints a passage from a publication titled, Modern Bookbinding. No other bibliographical detail is included for that title, but I have found a magazine from that era, Modern Bookbinding and Their Designers. No clue, though, as to the author of this particular piece.

You might wonder (I did) why there would be a need for instructions to open a book. And if you put those instructions inside the book, doesn't that defeat the purpose somewhat?



Opening a book is not as easy as you might think. At least if you read these instructions and try to follow them. Here's the gist of it in the opening run-on sentence:
Hold the book with its back on a smooth or covered table; let the front board down, then the other, holding the leaves in one hand while you open a few leaves at the back, then a few at the front, and so on, alternately opening back and front, gently pressing open the sections till you reach the center of the volume.
There's more, but let's stop here and reflect on that passage. The rest has little to do with procedure anyway.

I think this has to do with new books with fine (delicate?) bindings where you need to exercise the binding a bit and work out the stiffness. I believe the author means for you to place the book's spine on a clean, smooth surface, let the front cover down and then the back cover. Alternate the front and back pages in the same way till you reach the middle of the book.

Has anyone ever done that? I haven't. Maybe I should have been doing this with new books. Reasons for doing so are also given on the notice, as follows:
Do this two or three times and you will obtain the best results. Open the volume violently or carelessly in any one place and you will likely break the back and cause a start in the leaves. Never force the back of a book.

"A connoisseur many years ago, an excellent customer of mine, who thought he knew perfectly how to handle books, came into my office when I had an expensive binding just brought from the bindery ready to be sent home; he, before my eyes, took hold of the volume and tightly holding the leaves in each hand, instead of allowing them free play, violently opened it in the center and exclaimed: 'How beautifully your bindings open!' I almost fainted. He had broken the back of the volume and it had to be rebound."
I guess I've never handled such a fine binding in so "violent" a manner that I could have broken its binding. Who opens a book that way? Sounds to me like you'd have to get pretty rough with it to cause that kind of damage. Then again, I don't really know enough about the intricacies of fine bookbinding.

But I thought this was an interesting piece of ephemera to write about. Its content is something I never would have thought about, in terms of a proper and somewhat laborious procedure for opening a book.

My procedure is to just pick the book up, hold in right hand, and use the left hand to open the front cover and following pages to where you want to start reading. I haven't broken a binding yet with that procedure.

20 comments:

  1. The method described here is how my father taught me to open new books. The procedure seems to work, and I still use it with hardback books. You can do it while talking with someone or watching TV.

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  2. As the saying goes, you learn something new everyday. In this case, something new from something old. I would have never thought of opening a book this way, but I'm going to give it a try. Thanks for sharing your experience on this topic.

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  3. I learned this method at a Catholic grammar school back in the 1950s. It might be a monastic inheritance. It makes the spine more flexible, so the force is not as concentrated when opening.
    Interestingly, this method worked very well with the late 20c glue-only bindings; the glue was very stiff, and photocopying a new book quickly led to loss of pages at the opening. This method helped books survive intact longer, except for those handled by the usual Visigoths. Double-fan binding eventually helped some, too.

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  4. Google for the source -- http://cool.conservation-us.org/byorg/abbey/an/an06/an06-3/an06-307.html

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  5. My father also taught me to open a new book this way. He called it "breaking in the binding" in order to prevent "breaking the binding." I assumed it was antiquated and no longer necessary with the glued bindings we now have, but considering the feedback here, perhaps I'll give it another try.

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  6. I suppose that some books are more brittle than others. I forget where I read exactly the instructions that you quote, but I have tried it on a few books, and I've certainly encountered cracked books, which flop open to where the pages are loose.

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  7. I was reprimanded for not giving similar instructions to my elementary school students in my library. I didn't follow the recommendation and didn't explain that this would destroy many books -- especially paperbacks -- in our library.

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  8. This is most ideal for hard cover reference type books: dictionaries, hymnals, bibles etc. that you will not read page by page. For hardcover novels that you turn one leaf at a time this is not necessary. That's what my father and several school teachers taught me. New textbooks were always broken in this way and I still do it with books that I don't intend to read cover to cover.

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  9. The conventional wisdom emerging from these comments is that conventional techniques still work just fine and are encouraged. Also, half of the comments (mine excluded) are from readers whose fathers taught them this technique. Interesting!

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  10. I came across the same thing the other day while doing some archiving. I never realized opening a book required directions!

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  11. That was part of the processing of new books when I was a work-study student in the library at Macalester College thirty years ago ... don't do it very often now, unless it's something that looks fragile or poorly bound.

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  12. I continue to open new books this way. Back in the 1950's we were taught this methed.

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  13. When I first started to work in libraries as a teenager in the 70s, we were taught to break in new (or newly rebound) books this way. It made a lot of sense then when books were bound much better than they are today. It helped extend the life of the book by protecting the binding from those people who always open a book too hard or too far. These days we are just stuck with a lot of books that fall apart in your hand.

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  14. My father was a lover of books and taught me how to open books correctly (by the method described above.) This was in the late 1940s. I still open all of my new books this way and taught my son and daughter to do the same.

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  15. @turtlelearning, above: It does work for paper-back books as well. The trick is to put a soft bend in the pages forward of the glued binding so that the pages of the book turn at that soft bend and not the hinge where the paper meets the glue. Pressing the pages flat open, with a heavy hand, would indeed wreck a paper-back binding.

    It's even more critically important to "open" a book properly nowadays, when even many "hardback" books are perfect-bound and not sewn.

    I'm another one whose father taught me to handle new books this way; to this day, none of his books have loose pages.

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  16. My daughter (who worked at a bookstore) taught me to hold the spine of a book against your body for a few minutes before opening as you've mentioned. She said it helps the binding last longer if the glue is slightly warmed (nearly to body temperature) before the book is opened for the first time. Because we don't have decades to show for this method, I don't know if it actually helps or not. Does anybody else know?

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  17. One thing that I have had happen to hardback books I did not open this way (as I was taught back a zillion years ago in grade school - ok, the early 1970s) is that the spine and book becomes canted to one side. Apparently when I read a book, I pull harder as I turn the pages to the left, so by the time I have finished the volume, it has gotten out of true. Perhaps that is "breaking the binding" per the above comments?

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  18. My dad taught us to open new books this way, and would do it to any new paperback given to him (or to me!). It drove me nuts as a child in the 1980s, because even though the glued binding is preserved, the cover and the first 20 or so pages tend to be semipermanently canted up. I'd accuse my father of having ruined the book; he'd counter with "No, I fixed it!" Having perused a fair number of old paperbacks with tender and brittle spines, I can now appreciate the wisdom of his ways.

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  19. I continue to be intrigued by the number of commenters whose fathers taught them to open a book properly. Looks like Father knows best!

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  20. I was taught to open books this way. It helps preserve the integrity of the spine.

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