Badly built British books
March 10, 2003 7:01 AM   Subscribe

British books, built badly. British publishers' habit of putting out hardcovers with glued (rather than sewn) bindings and non-acid-free paper makes many rather expensive books start to fall apart after only a few years, Slate's Christopher Caldwell reports.
posted by mcwetboy (16 comments total)
Oh my. Sounds a little like the British built Jaguars of the late 70's through the mid 80's. - a little sun, a little rain.....
posted by troutfishing at 7:12 AM on March 10, 2003

It's about time someone complained - it's unacceptable. Damn the British and especially those publishers who have flagrantly done so much better in the past - from the O.U.P. down.

I buy American editions whenever I can and wait for paperbacks if I can hold out that long, as they're much better value and not as badly put together.

It's no exaggeration to say it is one of the great shaming downfalls of contemporary British culture. Anyone who has the pleasure of owning cheap, well-made, durable, attractive (and British-made) books published by Everyman's Library, knows it's only because of greed, stupidity and contumacious philistinism.

Good post, mcwetboy - glad you brought it up. Britain is the sick man of Europe, publishing-wise.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:24 AM on March 10, 2003

Before reading this article, I never really appreciated just how well made and attractive most of my books (at least the hardcovers) actually are. I just assumed that the quality to which I've grown accustomed was the norm worldwide.

Another good reason not to be British.
posted by aladfar at 7:32 AM on March 10, 2003

Yes, it's true about British Books, and looking at my shelves, it seems to have started in the early nineties. The article mentions in passing that RDB (Rapidly Decaying Binding) does not seem to be a university press issue. That seems true--in fact the small scholarly editions blue binding editons from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (the only place in the world to do advanced work in physics and Old Irish) and the similar red bound Welsh University of Wales Press editions have stood up astonishingly well under very hard use.
posted by medievalist at 7:45 AM on March 10, 2003

My uncle, a bookbinder in an old Philadelphia shop, apprenticed for over a year to learn how to painstakingly bind by hand. The books that come from his plant are coveted by publishing houses, who delay printing of some books just to get on the waiting list. I phoned him about this thread; he maintains that calling English books second-rate would be an insult to the words second-rate. I have some older books, made in England, that are just beautiful and are wearing exceptionally well. Hopefully this article will serve as a nice little kick in the keister and get the powers that be to start making those top-quality books again. Excellent post.
posted by iconomy at 8:16 AM on March 10, 2003

I haven't had the collapsing-binding issue come up yet, although I've definitely noticed that my UK 1st ed. Dalziel & Pascoe novels already have noticeably tanned pages. That would include a novel published about four years ago! (Perhaps Reginald Hill could have the bookdealer among his supporting characters speak up...) And ditto on the long-term survival rate of old Everymans; I have a slew of editions from the 1920s, all of which are in remarkably good shape.

The British appear to be repeating themselves when it comes to "cheap" publishing. When I teach nineteenth-century fiction, I always bring in two books, one from the late 18th c. and one from the 1890s. Students are always stunned by the difference: the first book has some foxing, but the pages are flexible and just barely turning cream color; the second book has yellowed pages in immediate danger of crumbling to bits. (Incidentally, anyone who has ever spent large amounts of time with 19th c. periodicals knows the perils of crumbling-paper-induced breathing disorders. I swear that photocopying such things is a hazard to your health.)
posted by thomas j wise at 9:36 AM on March 10, 2003

Well-said; well-posted. Sadly, names that formerly offered some guarantee of quality (the Harvill Press comes to mind) are now churning out books as shoddy as anyone's.
posted by misteraitch at 9:57 AM on March 10, 2003

We should get Nicholson Baker on the case.
posted by tomharpel at 10:27 AM on March 10, 2003

Welcome to the exciting world of "pay more, get less" without any forewarning (unless you're brave enough to look at how the book is made before you buy it). But one solution to your problems may be found here at Project Gutenber where milions of pages are archived in electronic formats.

Before the librarians and bookophiles jump at my throat, let me say that I own +-3K books and that I love paper, I hate plastic. But I managed to love electrons as well, because I just don't have any more space for my books, I love the fact I can squeeze tons of information in a 12cm compact disc.

I guess one could address the problem of book life lenght by simply replacing paperbacks and cheap market books with some kind of plastic sheets that can maintain their properties for some thousand years, while printing precious editions on extra quality paper and some kind of virtually indestructible plastic/metallic sheet, so that the knowledge of mankind is not entirely transformed into unreadable binary code.
posted by elpapacito at 11:22 AM on March 10, 2003

It's no exaggeration to say it is one of the great shaming downfalls of contemporary British culture.

i just hope our other "great shaming downfalls" are equally important.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:36 AM on March 10, 2003

I have one Oxford University Press and one Cambridge University Press hardback in front of me at the moment. They were both published in 1999. There's no obvious paper discoloration, but in each case their gatherings are glued (and rather unevenly, at that) and the pages are starting to warp quite noticeably. Ironically, they're both on the history of ideas.

It's frustrating because the principles of good book binding are so simple and well-established. Similarly, the realization that mechanical wood-pulp paper tends to disintegrate rapidly is at least a century old. Compared to the modern (i.e. 1840-60 -- ) item, a, say, late sixteenth century book printed on laid, cotton or linen rag paper is practically immortal.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:19 PM on March 10, 2003

It was my understanding that printing on acid-free paper was more economical — according to a talk I heard by a former LoC conservator, the main reason publishers switched (back) to acid-free paper in the seventies wasn't due to environmental or longevity concerns but because it extended the length of their printing equipment. Is this wrong?

Another good case for print-on-demand — allow people to choose the quality for which they're willing to pay.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 2:16 PM on March 10, 2003

Yes, it's deeply depressing. And the price of university reference hardbacks, designed for libraries -- frinstance, the CUP John Locke -- can be prohibitive.

The problem being that hardbacks are marketed to sell quickly, and be remaindered even quicker. The notion of books for archival purposes seems to have been abandoned. I'd buy American editions, like Miguel, if it weren't for the fact that I usually hate with a passion the typesetting that comes out of US publishers. So it's a toss-up between well-set books that fall apart, and badly-set books that last forever. (French publishers such as Gallimard seem to get the balance right, at least.)

For older works, I trawl the second-hand shops on Charing X Road (or for sewn hardbacks. And I wish we could go back to the days of buying sewn signatures from the bookshop and take them to custom binders. I don't see why that's not possible with online texts, even though the idea of setting up a novel for the printers would be a real busman's holiday.
posted by riviera at 5:43 AM on March 11, 2003 [1 favorite]

A non-member wrote me today, directing me to this cartoon on the subject.
posted by mcwetboy at 3:41 PM on March 13, 2003

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