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!

Good Diehl

Edith Diehl’s “Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique”, thanks in part to an inexpensive and ubiquitous Dover reprint, is perhaps one of the most common introductory bookbinding manuals.  Although frequently maligned for propagating innacuracies, especially the historical section, the practical section is informative and well done.  I use her sequence of leather covering steps when teaching– it is a clear, calm list of what needs to be done. Panicking students, covering their first full leather binding, often find it reassuring.  Her diagrams in general are concise and present the relevant information in an easy to follow manner.

 

diehl-hammer2

 

This hammer came from her studio, via Gerard Charrier, who purchased many of her tools. It is a large London pattern cramping hammer and according to Salaman, Barnsley’s 1890 catalog of cobblers tools lists six sizes of them, this one is a “No. 1”.  It is similar to a French hammer and is used to paning the sole edge, heel breast and waists of shoes. He also notes that this style of hammer was already going out of fashion by 1839!  The head is quite large, 55mm, so I don’t use it for binding- more often to tenderize pork when making tonkatsu, or in place of a proper beating hammer.  Even though I don’t use it for binding, the feeling of using historic tools remains somewhat inexpressible. Touching the  smooth worn areas at the end of handle, examining dirt near the head, or polished areas around the cheeks, gives me direct tactile and visual information about how Diehl held it.  The makers mark is fragmentary, but it starts “CHAMMO…” with “CAST STEEL” stamped underneath.   This hammer must have been the one she copied for the illustration below, unless she had more than one of them.  The illustration is from page 143 of the Dover edition.

 

diehl-hammer

 

Diehl  likes a large and heavy  hammer, feeling they are less likely to damage signatures by leaving small indentations in the spine.  She also makes the point that when using a heavy hammer, its weight does most of the work, so there is less danger of forcing it and damaging the signatures.  She specifically recommends that the hammer should be weighted so that the face balances even if no one is holding the handle, as both the photo and figure clearly show.  I find it a bit odd, given the attention to detail in most of her diagrams, that she didn’t depict the eye in this one. There are two photographs of students using a similar London pattern hammer in Palmer’s 1927 manual “A Course on Bookbinding for Vocational Occupation”, found on the frontispiece  and on page 38. One is using the face to back a book, the other the  peen. 

I also have a book from Diehl’s library. Her gold stamped book plate is quite lovely. It only measures 35mm high and 27mm wide and I assume it is St. Jerome.

 

diehl-bookplate1

 

 

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