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Goethe, McCarthy, and the Ups and Downs of Book Spines

Sometimes the small things intrigue us more than the big ones. Last week, as I was unpacking and organizing books which had been in storage while we were living in Austria I started wondering about book spines. Author and title are typically printed top to bottom on English books and bottom to top on German books.

Personally, I find it easier to read titles that are written bottom up, the German way. It seems that my body doesn't need to twist as much to get a good perspective on the print when the books are on the shelf, but maybe that's just what I am used to. Preference aside, the question is: why the difference?

A quick online search for the answer didn't bring up much. Wikipedia's entry for bookbinding has a paragraph on book spines. It confirms that "in the United States, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, titles are usually written top-to-bottom, and this practice is reflected in an industry standard" whereas "in most of continental Europe, the general convention is to print titles bottom-to-top on the spine".

The entry suggests that Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians use the top down approach because it makes reading the title easier when the book is placed on a table with the front cover upwards. In this case "the title is correctly oriented left-to-right on the spine". It will be upside down on books made the German way.

Wikipedia's explanation makes sense but it doesn't satisfy. Questions remain: was the difference always there? If not: which culture changed its habits? When? Why?

The answers are probably in some library somewhere, or online, maybe in an ebook. Speaking of which: I understand that - in a material sense - books are the equivalent of dead trees, that reading on iPads and Kindles is the more forest friendly way to go but the sensual appeal of a hard copy is hard to match.

No matter which way the spine - I enjoy touching the uncracked copies of Munro, McCarthy, Coetzee as much as fingering my yellowed, tattered volumes of Bernhard, Hölderlin, Goethe; I get a kick out of the smell and feel of dusty paper, enjoy scanning book collections in stores and homes (yours and mine), love the sound of the pages when I leaf through them, get lost in first paragraphs and in silly little questions about the orientation of titles on book spines.

Here's my last question: how will amazon and Apple ever compete?


Lorraine Seal said…
Interesting detail of life, Christina. Not having enough proficiency yet in German, I don't have any German titles on my shelves to compare with the English one. But I agree with you: it seems the spines would be easier to read this way.

I agree too on the sensuality of handling books themselves, rather than devices. I'm sure there will come a day when I decide the convenience is worth it, especially considering how far I am from a selection of English-language titles, but I like the yellowed pages and cracked bindings of my old friends.
Thank you, Lorraine. It is true: a Kindle or iPad would bring me closer to books in German language. I'll get one eventually too.

In Austria I bought my English books from They have an English books section and the selection is good.
Lorraine Seal said…
I'll try; thanks for the suggestion. I've also discovered that my favourite Irish book sellers, Kenny's of Galway, have expanded their online services; they seem to be offering free shipping in Europe, too.

Looking forward to your next post, Christina. Life must be hectic as well as very, very hot right now. Hang in there!
Lorraine -

Thank you for your kindness. Life has not only been hectic but I also slipped a disk in my neck two weeks ago. I am avoiding anything where I have to sit for long. Unfortunately that includes blogging.

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