Aunt Book Expresses Righteous Indignation

In Which Aunt Book Inveighs Against Ruining Illustrations

     Aunt Book was recently looking through some new books and came across a copy of Robert McCloskey's TIME OF WONDER.  Being, with reason, highly suspicious of reprinted picture books, she compared the new book with the old, and had to have recourse to her smelling salts.  The colors in the new book were pale and washed out, with nowhere near the richness and depth of the old copy.  Aunt Book has had the same sort of experience before, for example with the reissued versions of some of Tasha Tudor's books.  She does not know whether it is the printing method, the paper, or something else, but she does know that the results are disastrous.   

    Some years ago, Aunt Book was delighted to be able to order a brand-new copy of THE CABIN FACED WEST, by Jean Fritz, with illustrations by the award-winning Feodor Rojankovsky.  She already had a rather old copy of the book, which had been discarded by a library.  With what delight she opened the package when the book arrived!  With what eagerness she turned the pages!  With what acute horror she saw the barbarism that had been perpetrated against the illustrations!  Those in her old, battered copy were lovely, with subtle shading that reminded her of the illustrations in Lynd Ward's THE BIGGEST BEAR.  Those in the new book were coarse and sketchy.  They were the same illustrations as previously, but Aunt Book suspects that a)the plates used were very worn, and b)the quality of the paper was so bad - pulpy and rough - that even if the plates had been adequate it would not have helped.  Aunt Book wrote a scathing letter to the publisher, and rather than being given any explanation or the groveling apologies that should have been forthcoming, was told that the pictures were exactly the same as they had always been.  Aunt Book is not blind; she is also not stupid, and was not at all pleased that they assumed that she was.   


In Which Aunt Book Waxes Wroth Concerning Bindings   

    Aunt Book has often wondered:  If technology is so spiffy, then why is it that the quality of book bindings is so much worse now than it has been in years gone by?

     In the past, books were quite literally sewn together.  In some cases, each "signature," or group of pages, was folded and sewn at the fold onto a cloth strip; each signature was sewn next to the previous one until all the pages were together.  In other cases (generally with thinner books), pages were stitched through from front page to back.  In the oldest books, strings were passed through the pages from front to back and tied into a loop over the spine; the strings caused the characteristic raised bands on the spines of old leather-bound books.

      The sewn pages were then put between boards (originally of wood, later of very sturdy cardboard) which were covered either with leather or with cloth.  The hinges (where the inside of the cover met the pages at the spine) were often reinforced with cloth, as well, before the endpapers were glued into place.  The cloth was strong and flexible.  If any pages did come loose, it was relatively easy to sew them back into place.

      The covers were often works of art:  stamped with patterns or pictures in gold and other colors, embossed, decorated with pasted-on pictures.  Aunt Book has, on occasion, bought a book which she had no real intention of reading, simply because the cover was so gorgeous.

      Library bindings, while often not as beautiful - or even, to put it bluntly, flat-out ugly - were even sturdier than the regular books.  The cloth coverings were thicker, rugged, water-resistant cloth, the pages more strongly sewn.  They could endure practically any treatment that could be dished out.  Aunt Book recalls reading once that, in the event of a
nuclear war, the only living creatures to survive would be cockroaches.  If that is true, Aunt Book envisions the cockroaches leaning back in comfortable chairs, reading old library-bound books, which would surely
also make it through quite nicely.

      And now?  What of books now?  Forgive Aunt Book for a moment while she dabs a lace-edged handkerchief daintily at the corners of her eyes, overcome with distress.  Then permit Aunt Book to introduce you to a concept with which you may not be familiar:  "perfect binding."  And permit Aunt Book also to indulge in an unladylike snort and a "Ha!  Perfect, my foot!"

     Perfect binding is the binding used in paperback books.  The pages of the book are stacked neatly so that the edges are even.  Glue is applied along one edge, and the spine of the paper cover is pressed against that glue.  Thus the only thing holding each page in place is a strip of glue as wide as the page is thick.  If the glue dries out, or if the book is read energetically a few times, pages start coming loose.  Aunt Book has had the experience of turning pages on relatively new paperbacks only to have the pages come loose in her hand.  It is almost impossible to mend such a book, because when one page is glued another pulls loose.

      Aunt Book is quite content that most paperbacks should be constructed that way.  They have their own uses:  they are relatively cheap, and easily portable.

      However, Aunt Book is most definitely not content that some paperbacks should masquerade as hardcovers.  In many instances, a book that looks like a hardcover, and so is assumed to be bound like one (that is, sewn), is in fact "perfect bound."  It is in essence a paperback book whose front and back covers happen to be hard.

      Aunt Book once mentioned this fact to a friend who makes a point of buying hardcover books and keeping them in pristine condition.   The friend checked her books, discovered that Aunt Book was correct, and pitched a conniption fit, outraged that publishers were charging many times what a paperback cost for a binding that was nearly identical to

     Aunt Book also resents this.  She knows of one spectacularly popular series which is making a fortune for its author and publisher; and yet the publisher is not willing to go to the slight added expense of sewing the books rather than perfect binding them.  Since the books are very thick, the strain on the binding is considerable, with the result that pages start coming loose after only a few readings.  

      There are some honorable exceptions, and there are also some paperback books whose pages are sewn rather than simply glued into the covers.  One can only be sure by looking at the pages at the top of the spine or at the bottom, and seeing whether they are grouped into signatures or simply loose pages that have been glued.

      The covers of newer books are another problem.  Many of them, rather than being covered with cloth (and certainly rather than being covered with leather!) are covered only with paper, or at best with cloth at the spine and paper for the rest of the cover.  It does not require a stroke of genius to deduce that paper wears out more quickly than cloth does.

      As for finding beautiful embossing or printing on the covers, Aunt Book suggests that you not hold your breath.  Some books do have some slight decoration, but they blush with shame when put next to the glories of yesteryear.  Dust jackets, while often quite attractive, do not make up for the loss of decorated bindings.

      Yes, yes, Aunt Book has heard the defense that the poorer quality of newer books has to do with keeping the price of the books low enough for more people to afford, rather than having them restricted only to wealthier people; but if her Dear Nieces and Dear Nephews will pardon her for saying so, that is flapdoodle.  Edward Stratemeyer built an empire on selling inexpensive series books (such as the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, and many, many, many, many, many, many others) - books that, although inexpensive, were sturdier and of a better quality than many of today's hardcovers.  Companies rebind books for libraries, and yet the prices are not much higher than those of the publishers' bindings.

Aunt Book is seriously displeased, and trusts that the matter will be remedied.  Immediately.   


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