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Straight Books, Backward Books

Why the Text on the Spines Goes Up for Some Books and Down for Other?

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The mystery of the home library is a good problem to try one’s psychological skills. First, it requires skills for observation and defamiliarization. That is, to notice something you’ve been looking at since birth and that you take for granted, and to subject it to questioning. Why the text on the spine of the books, when they are upright on the shelf, goes from bottom to top? Is this just an accident? Or it has some reason? It is especially interesting that on some books the text on the spine goes in the opposite direction. Accident, again? An error? Or a pattern?

The next skill we have to use is that for psychological thinking – in order to solve the mystery. I call this thinking psychological despite a possible remonstrance from the part of logicians, detectives or bookbinders, because for me it is important to fathom the way of life, the way of thinking, the way of using the books that made that puzzling difference. And this, I dare think, is a psychologist’s skill.

So, what’s the explanation? I admit to having started with a survey of possible additional factors  that are present when the text goes up and when it goes down. Are there any patterns, correlations? Actually I stumbled on the difference when I compared some science fiction books in my private library. I noticed that books printed before 1990 were standardized – the text goes up. I quickly dismissed the hypothesis that a new standard was introduced after 1990, because the same publishers who printed ‘backward’ books had later editions with the old ‘straight’ standard.[1] I concluded that in the turmoil and self-directed learning heyday in book publishing in the beginning of the 1990s some of the publishers just took the covers of the original editions without turning the text on the spine. So, I had to check about the standard abroad. I found that in Great Britain and USA the text always goes from top to bottom. In France, Germany, Italy and Russia it goes like it does in Bulgaria. I didn’t bother to look up (or down, or right) Asian books. Here I came to the deduction that we have at hand another example of “The Island vs. The Continent” – just a facet in the gamut from traffic direction to the subject of philosophy. A little bit later, searching the internet, I established two facts: 1) no answer is provided (which might mean that the question is stupid), and 2) in the Netherlands the books are ‘backward’ too.

At this point I knew I had to make it out myself. As some of my blog’s witty readers have remarked, a few centuries ago there was likely no difference, because books’ spines had no text; later the text was printed horizontally, which means you could read the name of the book when it stands on the shelf without tilting your head. Probably the two standards were established later, with mass book printing, when there were thinner books on the market. This, I hope, ruled out the hypothesis of some quaint English tradition dating back to the 1400s and having no chance to be reinvented rationally.

Let’s have a careful look at a book. When we put it on the shelf, it is roughly all the same where the text goes to – we would have to either bend our head left or right. If you take a book and put it on an empty shelf, it would be easier to lean it slightly to the left (if you are right-handed), which means that the text should go top-bottom (English-style) to be easier to read. So the shelf is practically a dead end.

Now let’s take the book from the shelf and lay it on the table. Here we see something. When the book lies face up, we see the front cover and which one book it is. However, when we put it face down, the Continental method has a clear advantage – the text on the spine is easy to read and we still know which one book it is. The English method presents us with a back cover and an upside-down name on the spine. Therefore, with the same quantity of symbols on the book, the cover of the Continental book carries more information and is more convenient – on the shelf and on the table.

But wait – is this always true? If I use single books, it is very much so. But put ten books in a pile on the table, like usual, with the face up. Now it is more convenient for the text to go the English way, so we can see straight where the book stays in the pile. The books are in a chunk, so I don’t care about one book facing down with an upside-down name on the spine. Are you following? We arrive at the conclusion that Continental format of the text on the spine is more convenient for single books, and the Island format – for books piled one over the other.

Here we reach the question: what does it tell for the way they are used, for the needs and habits of people, the fact that books are usually used singularly or, the reverse, in a group. What books do you read one at a time? You take it off the shelf, carry around, put here and there, read in bed, on the bus and so forth? Or – the easier question – what books do you read in a chunk, several at the same time? Well, obviously these are books you read selectively, only in parts, making connections between, with a topic in mind. With a specific problem. Like in the university, for example – if I have to research the problem of aggression, I would take at least five or six sources, put them on the desk, and start scanning them. It is the problem that guides me, not the content of the book. I am not interested in the whole book, the author’s logic, etc. I am only interested in this particular problem. That is why we can call this type of reading “problem-oriented”, or pragmatic. The last word might have already rung a bell and a small neuron thread in your head might have linked it to your notion of “English” and “American”.

On the other hand is reading a book from cover to cover. Indeed, it is possible for pragmatic books as well (textbooks, science books, manuals), but is mandatory for literature. When we read fiction books, we immerse in the work from beginning to the end. This is absolutely necessary in order to fulfill the author’s intention and to relish his art. For crime stories – still more. So, if our readers use more often literature than pragmatic books, it is better to publish books in the Continental manner.

This string of reasoning leads to the simplistic conclusion that in Great Britain and USA (plus the Netherlands) people read more pragmatic books – textbooks, science, manuals, guides, encyclopedias, how-to books. On the Continent people read more literature. Pragmatic books are read in a problem-oriented way, with more sources at a time; literature is read in a content-oriented way, one book at a time. In the first case it is more important to be able to read the spine text when the book is in a pile with others, face up. In the second – it is more important for the spine text to enable book recognition in all positions – alone.

Finally it came to me that this hypothesis is easy to check, and I searched statistics of book publishing in USA and Europe. What it showed – for 2004 in the US literature had a share of between ¼ and 1/3 of published books. In Europe – it is way over 50%. Well! I wouldn’t shake my head – I’ve had enough already of these books!

[1] This makes for a terrible annoyance in bookstores today – to scan a shelf with books you need to turn into a metronome.

And links to the sources of my data:

US book publishing statistics (1993 – 2004)

European book publishing statistics (2004)

The Netherlands reference about spine text orientation


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