Dover Publications: The Quintessential Trade Paperback

Dover Publications reprint of Edith Diehl’s “Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique. I’ve used it heavily since 1988.

A recent piece from the NY Times Magazine, “As Everything Else Changes, My Dover Paperbacks Hold Up”, reminded me how much I love my Dover books. From the perspective of a book conservator, Dover made the best paperbacks I know of, combining physical durability, pleasant tactility and legibility.

The Dover sales pitch, on the back cover of every book, is no lie. “A Dover Edition Designed for Years of Use!  We have made every effort to make this the best book possible. Our paper is opaque, with minimal show-through; it will not discolor or become brittle with age. Pages are sewn in signatures, in the method traditionally used for the best books, and will not drop out, as often happens with paperbacks held together with glue. Books open flat for easy reference. The binding will not crack or split. This is a permanent book.” In addition to being very well made, Dover books were always very reasonably priced. What’s not to like?

The textblock of my “Bookbinding” is in good physical condition, though the surface pH of the leaves is around 4.5. The spine is becoming concave, due to 32 years of very hard use, but the sewing is completely intact. The covering material, consisting of three layers, is also in good condition. There are only a few detached areas on the spine, some delamination, and tension/compression creasing. The spine glue is still surprisingly flexible. Dover books were always well printed, with nicely chosen paper for reproducing illustrations. The book has a pleasing solidity, reminiscent of a phone book. It is not a book that needs careful handling.

At the beginning of my career, this book was read, reread, abused, annotated, and weighted the book open with a bar of steel while I bound my own books following Diehl’s instructions. While the book repair section is quite dated, the binding information is still solid. My students always get a copy of her calm and detailed checklist of what to do in the flurry of covering a full leather book (pp. 208-209).  I like the Dover reprint so much, I’ve never been tempted to buy the original two volume first edition, or the Hacker Art Books reprint.

It is great the Times published a piece about book structure for the general public. As the author notes, the current worldwide instability may drive us to look for more permanent things in our lives, and re-appreciate them. A bit of hope found in a Dover paperback?

Edith Diehl. Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1980.  Reprint, orig. 1946.

UPDATED 6 OCT 2020: Corrected title from “… Mass Market Paperback” to “… Trade Paperback” in the title. Thanks to Ann’s comment below!

9 Replies to “Dover Publications: The Quintessential Trade Paperback”

  1. Well, there are not really any single books that I would consider up to date. I have heard rumors that one might be in the works, though. The nature of conservation has changed dramatically in the past 15 – 20 years. Articles in peer reviewed journals are more reliable, but tend to focus on single types of treatments. My “Conservation of leather bookbindings” week long workshop might be the best one stop shopping!

  2. Most of the Dover books I have seen over the past several years are perfect bound, and it appears that they abandoned the sewn signatures some time ago.

  3. I own this book and maybe 200 or more other books published by Dover–some sewn and some saddle srapled, but all in good condition. This is a wonderful eligy to Diehl and Dover. However, in publishing, “mass market” refers to those small format cheapo paperbacks sold on newstands, in airports, and so on. Good quality larger format paperbacks like those produced by Dover and intended for sale in bookstores are called “trade paperbacks.”

  4. Dover paperbacks are my favorite, too—I was just saying this to Chela last week! And like Donald, I’ve also noticed newer books that are not sewn. I have a copy of Dard Hunter’s Papermaking that I ordered online about 4 or 5 years ago that is adhesive bound. I remember being surprised by that when I received it.

  5. Hey, was the book also printed around then? My Dover “Papermaking” just says “first published 1978” A previous owner inscription dates it to 1993, and it is also adhesive.

  6. Ah I’m not sure. I don’t have the book with me, but I can check on that in a few weeks.

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