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How to Open a Book

September 29, 2008

I opened a volume of an old, old set of books that hasn’t been used in a long time, if ever, and at the front between a sheet of onion skin paper and the next page was a yellowed slip of paper with some instructions.

“Notice. How to open a book.

“Hold the book with its back on a smooth or covered table; let the front board down, then the other, holding the leaves in one hand while you open a few leaves at the back, then a few at the front, and so on, alternately opening back and front, gently pressing open the sections till you reach the center of the volume.”

“Do this two or three times and you will obtain the best results. Open the volume violently or carelessly in any one place and you will likely break the back and cause a start in the leaves.”

I like the use of “till.” Don’t worry … you don’t have to do this with library books. We’ve already done it. You should be careful handling library books, of course, but you don’t need to follow these instructions in bed before settling in with your next good book.

Rather, this is what we do when preparing the book for you.

It works. “Opening” a brand new book this way can extend the life of the book greatly. It flexes the spine and gives it the beginnings of a nice curve so that the pages fan open.

This little notice slipped in the book came from a time when books were generally bound much better than they are today, but they still needed careful handling in the beginning to perform well.

I enjoyed finding this notice. It’s an appealing artifact itself, nicely printed but carelessly trimmed so that the text is off center. The printer must have cut up thousands of these to slip into new books. It didn’t have to be pretty.

It’s a great piece of ephemera, though. And here we shall break the back of this column and cause a start in your reading.

A lovely new book in the library covers printed matter that is not quite ephemera (which is defined as “printed matter of passing interest”).

The book is titled “More than words: illustrated letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.”

Perhaps you were fortunate enough to receive such letters before the days of email, and maybe you even produced some. These are handwritten letters that include illustrations by the author, all of which are appealing and some of which are stunning.

The illustrations are decorative, whimsical, explanatory. But the pictures alone are not the point. They are inviting in the context of the entire document—the paper, the ink, the handwriting, and the content of the letter.

Many are written with fountain pens, although there are plenty of examples into the modern day of ball-point pens and felt-tip markers.

The book is published by the Princeton Architectural Press with a scholarly bent. At the back is a section of verbatim transcriptions of the letters for ease of reading.

Even some fine handwriting can be challenging to read until you get used to it. And judging from the Internet sign-in sheets at the library, I’d say most of us have probably experienced finding our own handwriting illegible.

Many of the letters are at least as fascinating as the illustrations. Some of the writing from the 19th century seems remarkably contemporary. We imagine ourselves on a leading edge more often than we are.

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