Stack of books

Selecting Books for New Bindings


I came across a word the other day that fits my book hoarding “nerdism”. Tsundoku is a Japanese word that has no direct synonym in English. The word describes the state of reading addicts –  “tsunde” (meaning “to stack things”), “oku” (meaning “to leave for a while”) and “doku” (meaning “to read”). Perhaps this is what lead me to the bookbinding arts.

To expand my bookbinding skills, I scour library book sales looking for old books to re-bind. Often, you can find good rebinding candidates for very affordable prices ($2) and recycle the unwanted book into an art piece. When considering a book to buy from these sales, there are specific traits I look for.

Text on paper
Bright, clean paper compared with aged paper with foxing

First, I look at the paper of the book. The book’s printing quality is often dependent on the character and age of the paper. Whether a laid or smooth finish, good archival paper does not “fox” as quickly as cheaper paper. Foxing is present when the paper turns from its original color to a darker color, especially on the edges. Newsprint is an example of cheaply made paper that will turn darker over time and become brittle. Paper foxing can also occur with a very old book poorly stored. Archival paper has less chance of being brittle when stored under normal temperatures in a home or climate controlled building. I like a heavier paper weight to the feel. For me, the weight makes it easier to read. The paper opaqueness prevents the type from showing through on the back side of the page. The brightness of the paper enhances the contrast of type and graphics on the page.

Book spines
Signature on left compared to perfect binding on right
Book pages
Stitching stations in the middle of a signature

Second, I look at the spine top (head) of the book to figure out if the original binding has signatures or if it is a perfect binding. Folded pages gathered into  4, 8, 12, 16 or larger page groupings  sewn together are signatures. Perfect bindings, where the pages at the spine are straight cut flat sheets, are a quick modern machine type of binding. Usually, perfect bindings have glue lines between the pasted on headbands and paper edges. I prefer re-binding a book with signatures over perfect binding. Signatures create a more flexible binding, have a longer usage life, and the binder can round the back (spine). The opening of the perfect binding is typically stiff and over time the individual sheets begin to separate at the spine with heavy use. Perfect bindings typically have flat backs (spines) instead of curved backs. Besides, I am faster at sewing the text block with signatures.

Open books
Comparable book page layouts and typography with linespacing differences

Third, I look at the typography and interior layout of the book. The first things I look for are generous margins and text linespacing. If the book needs the edges trimmed, the generous margins can keep the book text from appearing claustrophobic. While a book with images and typographic flourishes are fun to re-bind, I also consider simpler, less ornamented layouts. I am especially drawn to the classic golden mean proportions of a book’s layout. The layout design of a book lends a deeper connection with the text content and enhances the reading experience when executed well. It also serves as inspiration for my cover designs. Like a blank slate, the simpler text-only books offer me an opportunity to add my own illustrations or photographs to the rebinding.

There are a number of collection points to acquire books no one wants anymore – friend’s generosity, community book sellers, and library book sales. The lovely thing about library book sales, it supports the community library, and adds to your growing stack of unread books waiting… just waiting.

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