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!

What is the Oldest Thing You Made That You Still Use?

Bottom half of a sheet metal tool box I made in shop class.

A few days ago I wondered, what is the oldest thing I made that I still use? After digging through a lot of stuff, I think it is this sheet metal tool box that I made in high school shop class in 1981.

At that time, it was one of the standard projects in metal shop. I still use the skills I learned when I made this: how to layout and bend thin metal, how to follow a two dimensional pattern to make a three dimensional object, how to join sheet metal, and the value and economy of using off the shelf parts in conjunction with handmade ones. I didn’t have enough time to paint it, so it remains with the layout blue exposed.

I still use the toolbox for storage, even though the spot-welded, piano-hinged lid failed a long time ago and is lost. The bottom part of the box is currently holds over 15 pounds of scraps, and is totally solid.

It is comforting to have had this tool box for the past 38 years, and still use it, even though it is damaged. Like an old friend, it is easier to overlook its faults. It is satisfying knowing this toolbox will outlast me — like most of the tools I make and use, and the books I work on —  a persistent reminder we are not so important.



DISCARDED stamp on a former New York Academy of Medicine Bookplate. This book has been discarded twice, and is now back in a Rare Book Collection.

A somewhat ironic placement of this DISCARDED stamp.  I suspect every institution has sold, discarded, or recycled books in their collection, often quite quietly, not just the NY Academy of Medicine. I’m amazed how many books I have worked on that were deaccessioned at some point in their lives, then recollected, once again deemed valuable. What is considered a rare book changes. I’ll lay good money that a lot of currently “non-rare” books will become rare at some point in the future. Will all paper based codex books be rare someday?