About buying and selling used books and stuff online. Plus my adventures and random thoughts.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

How to Open a New Book

Sometimes, a new book can be damaged by improperly opening it. I thought everyone who cares about books knew this, but evidently not. I recently got a snotty e-mail from a man who bought my collectible fine condition copy of a book written by a famous political conservative.

"Nothing in this book identifies it as a first edition," he complained. "And it makes a horrible creaking kind of noise when I open it, there must be some kind of awful damage to the spine."

I wanted to yell at the man -- "Yes, the damage you inflicted on it!"

Let me explain.

A well made hardcover book has pages that are sewn together, a process call "binding." Wikipedia has a fine article on the process here. A brand new, never read book, will have relatively stiff thread holding the pages together. Glue may also be holding the boards to the text block. As the book ages, these parts may actually stiffen. Now, when a book is read, the threads stretch and the binding loosens. Usually, the reader is unaware of this relaxation in the binding. However, if the book was never read and is more than a few years old, the stretching of the threads makes a distinctive sound; a sound of cracking the spine, damaging the book in invisible ways that will shorten its life considerably.

Any new or previously unread book should be opened gently; lay the spine flat on a table and hold the text block up; working with a few pages at a time, from the outside in, open the book, alternating with the front and back. For a detailed description, check out this nice article at Tate Publishing.

As far as the "first edition" complaint, publishers use a variety of ways to identify firsts. The words "first edition" may not appear anywhere in a book that is, in fact, a true first. This information is hardly secret; in fact, a reference I carry with me all the time is a small book written to help book dealers identify first editions, Bill McBride's indispensable "A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions." Numerous articles posted on the internet discuss identification of firsts, such as this one from Quill & Brush, or this from Empty Mirror Books, or this from BooksSeattle.

Well, I could not figure out how to yell at the man via e-mail. So I explained about how to open a previously unread book and how publishers confuse the issue on first editions. I only hope he opened the links I sent.


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