Anatomy of a book

Books are a dual manifestation of two thing: content and body. The content of a book is what most people think of when their thoughts drift towards bookish matters: what did this book say? What was its message? Was the book any good? However, books also have a physical presence. It is an object; it has a body; this body has parts and names. This body is probably what you’re probably concerned about when you’re buying a used book. What condition is it in? How is the cover holding up? Are the pages stain & highlight free? Museum folks, collectors, conservators, and others who work with books as objects call the value embodied in the body of a book its artifactual value.

I’ve written before on the content of various books, as well as some of the production processes surrounding books ( publishing, advertising, & reviews), but I haven’t really touched on books as objects. This is because relative to other things that I don’t know very much about, I really don’t know very much about books as objects. But I’m taking steps to change that!

First thing I’m doing is learning the basic anatomical parts of a codex. (“Codex” is what people in the book trade call your standard book. It’s to distinguish a book from, say, papyri scrolls, clay tablets, and other “bookish” containers of information.) Below is an illustration that I took from the bookseller Alibris. Let us commence with our game of Operation.

Got a patient on the table/book in hand? Yes? OK, now look down at your patient. Is he covered in a stiff board? If yes, then he’s a hardcover. If not, then he’s (probably) a paperback. Incidentally, my boss, Jake, the head of our preservation department, says that he is now encouraging librarians to buy paperbacks in place of hardcovers. This initially sounds crazy because hardcovers are thought to be so much more durable than paperbacks, and a big part of preservation is durability. However, Jake says that publishers have now taken to putting the same inferior paper and ink between hard boards that they use to print paperbacks. As such, a library is better off paying less money to buy a paperback and then giving the book a library binding down the road if necessary.

Anatomy of book

Look at the patient again. See where the board attaches to the spine of the book? That groove where the attachment happens is call the joint. That same joint, when you have opened the cover of the book is now called the hinge. This is like distinguishing between a sore inside one’s mouth (a cankersore) and one outside (a cold sore).

Are you holding your patient upside up? Yes? Good, most patients probably like that. The top of the pages of the book when it’s held upside up is the the top edge (duh!). The fore edge is where the pages actually open; where the pages are attached to each other and in turn, attached is to spine, is called the gutter. We are now used to shelving our books with the spine out to the reader and the fore edge facing the back wall of the shelf. However, that was not always the case.  When books were much more rare and hence precious than they are today, libraries used to chain the books to their shelves. These chained libraries would often have the books fore edges facing out because the chains went through the spines of the books. Here’s is a picture of what that looks like.

Because of the way books are shelved, pages tend suffer more environmental damage at the top than bottom edges. If you have a very old or brittle book in hand, try testing how brittle the paper in that book is. Make a small dog ear at the top edge of a page. Now do it at the bottom. Wiggle the dog ears back and forth.  (The name for this procedure of testing how brittle the paper is is the “double fold” test.) Do you see a difference between the two? Often times, you can. Top edges tend to show more degradation than bottom edges, and pages may break easier at the top than at the bottom. The same is true with pages at either end of the book vs. those in the insulated middle.

The words inside the pages of the book make up the textblock. This is the stuff that you would presumably be paying the most attention to if you were interested in the content of the book. Within the area of books as subjects, however, this is just one of part that makes up the book body. For some books, they are not even the most important part — examples include Audubon’s Birds of America, a rare book and expensive book most prized for its illustrations.

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