Preparing a Book to Read it

When you are trying to read a book and you want it to lay flat, it can be frustrating. You can be gentle, and the book will close shut as soon as you unhand it. Or you can be rough with the book and bend the spine backwards. The book will lay flat, but a slight breeze might blow a lot of its pages into the atmosphere.

Like anything, there is a right way to do it.

Wesley Tanner, a woodworker, printer and designer of fine books, shared with me how he conditions a well-made book to be read so it will lie flat on a tabletop and stay in one piece.

As an example, I conditioned “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” – our latest book. Katy, my daughter, shot the video. Here’s how Wesley says it is done:

“The first thing I do when I get a book like this with sewn signatures is to ‘open it up.’ I remove the jacket off and lay the book on a table (admiring the lovely silver stamping). Looking at the top or bottom edge at the spine, I find the middle of the first section, and open the book with both hands gripping the outside edges of the pages, and gently ‘break’ the glue that has seeped through the sewing holes. I only open the book far enough to do this, about 80 percent of the way down to flat, as I don’t want to wreck the spine. After I’ve done two or three signatures I start from the back, as this will counter the natural twist the book’s spine will get after reading the book straight through. After that, the book should lay open on the table when I go get another cup of coffee.”

“Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” has eight signatures with 16 pages in each signature. That means you will need to do the operation described above eight times to make the book lie flat.

It really works. Just take care and don’t over-do it.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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26 Responses to Preparing a Book to Read it

  1. Tom says:

    When I was about 10, a neighbor who was a librarian (an old spinster who lived with her spinster sister) taught be that very trick, and I’ve used it all these years since (61). Yes, it really works and is nice to know.
    Always fun watching you work.

  2. Robert Justiana says:

    Christopher,

    I guess you wouldn’t want to see my copy of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest. After 2 readings ( I’m on the third pass), considerable time in my shop, a few drops and an unfortunate coffee accident, it ain’t pretty. All that being said, it will always have a prominent place on my bookshelf.

    p.s. Finished my chest last week.

  3. Rascal says:

    Thanks, Chris! (and Katy!)
    Just to be clear, is a signature the grouping of pages that is sewn to the binding? So one opens to the center of one of the groupings to break the glue up.

    I never knew one could do this and I’ve been reading voraciously all my life. One could argue that I’ve had a dearth of ‘fine’ books until these past few years when I started getting hardcover books as much as possible. Thanks for the info!

    • lostartpress says:

      If you look at the photo at the top of the post you will see eight groupings of pages bound in glue. Each of these is a “signature” in the printing lexicon. Each signature is sewn to the rest of the signatures (in a good-quality book) into what is called a “book block.” That block is affixed to the shell that covers the bock in a variety of ways.

      The process described above will break up the little glue bits that seep into the block through the holes that pierce the signatures when they are sewn. If done with care it won’t wreck the glue or the thread that holds everything together. A well-made book that has been treated with some care can last for centuries.

  4. Bosshard says:

    Those of us who are letterpress printers, aspiring woodworkers, and collectors of books that will transcend generations take some exception to that. Handle them gently, enjoy them immensely… but “break the glue”… oh, the horror!!

    • Derek L says:

      Indeed! You do need to gently work the binding to make it open nicely (first, partially opening in the hand, then doing so on the table if you must)… But unless it’s been specially bound to do so, books aren’t meant to open flat and remain open and the method described above will damage the integrity of the binding and vastly shorten the life of the book.

      Nor should a properly bound and handled book have any ‘twist’ to the spine.

      Derek – Bookbinder/bookseller/aspiring woodworker

  5. What book? I merely saw a beautiful table top.

  6. abtuser says:

    I had a college prof actually take the time to explain this very procedure. Works great. My better sewn texts have all done quite well over the years. Good to see the technique reproduced here.

  7. Gary says:

    What flavor of “tea” are you drinking?

  8. James McCoy says:

    I may be showing my age but starting in about the third grade, whenever we got a new textbook my teachers would take us through that exercise. It taught me to like and respect books, and I guess it worked because I still do it and my books are probably my most treasured posesetions, and the bookshelves I’ve built are the most important pieces of furniture in our house. Please don’t tell my wife I said that.

    • James McCoy says:

      Oops, guess my thumbs got crossed. That should be “most treasured possessions”.

    • John Cashman says:

      New textbooks? Did you go to school with the Rockefellers? All of my textbooks said there were 46 states, or 21 pairs of chromosomes. Heck, I think we only had 25 letters in the alphabet. New textbooks? Criminy.

      • James McCoy says:

        Actually, I said textbook. Singular. Occasionally they would have to replace one of the old ones with a new one. Whenever they did our teacher would take us through the steps to “break in” a new book gently. They didnt belong to us they belonged to the school. I don’t know anything about the Rockefellers but I did feel pretty “rich” growing up when I did. I wouldn’t want to be a kid today.

  9. Norman Reid says:

    Like the others, one of my school teachers–I no longer recall which one–took us through the exercise of breaking in a new book, a lesson I well recall to this day. It is a lifelong skill worth having.

  10. Another “lost art” brought to our attention.
    Thanks Chris!

  11. Graham Burbank says:

    OMG ! A “manufacturer” who actually wants you to preserve and extend the lifespan of their product, instead of hoping you will trash it and buy another? What is this world coming to? All joking aside, perhaps a slip sheet in your packaging with this very advice would be a nice addition to your “product”. Educating the ignorant masses is time consuming work, but appreciated by a select few. Keep it coming, Chris, keep it coming.

  12. El Platt says:

    What a coincidence! I just bought ‘Anarchist’s Tool Chest’ last week, but it is so beautiful, I’ve been afraid to open it fully. I may need another therapist appointment!

  13. David Pickett says:

    Chris and Katy – thanks very much. I’d never come across this before, and I’m very glad I know about it now.

    Just off the try it on my copy of The Anarchist’s Toolchest….

  14. Ben Hutton says:

    I’d be interested to know if you guys take the dust jacket off the book while reading it or leave it on.

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