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!

A Few Random Thoughts on 19th Century Books and Machines

Starting in the mid 20th century, many book conservators and proto-conservators rallied around the now common premise that it is the material make-up and structure of books, and not just the surface decoration that needs to be studied and conserved.  So it seems somewhat ironic that most of the recent research/ interest in 19th century cloth case bindings focuses on– you guessed it– surface decoration and famous designers.

For those who think the structure of 19th century cloth case structures are all the same, I urge you to look again. They document the most radical change in book structure during the past 12 centuries.  They dramatically evolve to become the ideal structure for fabrication by machinery.  In fact, the machinery itself is of interest, beginning almost contemporaneously with the Luddite Rebellion of 1811-12.  Interpreting how the machines evolved, were used, were maintained and affected labor is virtually unresearched.  I fear many of these machines gone- sold for scrap.  Similarly, a friend of mine recalled seeing mountains of smashed linotype machines left for trash in the 1970’s along the West Side Highway in NYC.

The structure of cloth cased books, and boarded books, preceded mechanization and was originally done by hand.  Around 1820, the only machine used in cloth binding was a rolling machine to replace hand beaters, but by the 1880’s about the only operation done by hand was the final casing in. I almost always find it interesting to look at machines, speculating about how they functioned and appreciating their aesthetics.

In some respects, the Espresso Book Machine could be considered the quintessence of bookbinding machines. It can print, bind, cover and trim a “library quality paperback” in about 4 minutes, with humans only needed to clear the occasional paper jam in the high speed printer.

Now we just need a reading machine to replace the outdated human interface….