Hunter Praska's Blog

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hunter ###Admin 2019-02-25 07:19:42 No. 4

What happened to hardcover books?

While the title specifically mentions hardcover, I want to write about the general decline in book quality. I'm going to cover hardcovers, paper, printing, and binding.


First, what happened to hardcover books? Go on Amazon and look up a popular book, maybe Snow Crash. Note the lack of a hardcover option. There is a "School and Library Binding" which is indeed hardcover; but it is not made clear that this is hardcover. Furthermore, the description states "FOR USE IN SCHOOLS AND LIBRARIES ONLY" which may lead a consumer to believe that they would get in trouble if they purchased it for personal use. I'm not sure if Amazon is deemphasizing hardcover books or if publishers no longer produce them. Perhaps I'm alone, but I find paperback vastly inferior to hardcovers.


The paper used in a book defines its tactility in a large way. It also plays a role in how legible the text is. Many textbooks today use a paper that feels almost like plastic, and it gives a cheap impression. Virtually all books made today use very thin paper. While this makes books smaller, it also makes pages translucent; so much so that it is often possible to read text that is on the other side of the paper. This greatly reduces legibility. If you compare books of various ages there is a progression towards thinner, more transparent, paper. Thinner paper also bends and folds over much more easily, leading to damage. There are situations where thin paper is superior: reference books such as dictionaries. This type of book is not generally read; rather small sections are viewed when needed thus legibility is not as great of a concern. I think that the nicest paper I've found in a book was in a copy of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography printed in the 1920's. Very thick and quite opaque with a nice tactility.


With mass production of books, the binding has suffered greatly. Text blocks are now held together by glue alone. In the past text blocks were stitched together with thread and glue was used as a supplement. My old copy of SICP has a damaged text block and I can see that only a piece of gauze is holding it together. With paperbacks that have seen moderate use it is common to see the binding falling apart; sometimes entire chunks of the book will fall out.


Print is perhaps the only area of books that has improved with time. The accuracy of modern printers has greatly increased the legibility of text. However, as a side effect, books now generally have smaller print. This means that overall, legibility has not increased, and has possibly been reduced! At least for people with poor eyesight like me.

What can we do?

Unfortunately not much. In order to print books, you need the copyright. In order to get copyright you probably need to be established. Certainly you might start out by being open to self-publishing which has become quite popular with Amazon. The problem with this is that most people will not want to pay much money for these books as the authors are unknown. Attracting authors who will sell seems like a very difficult problem.

The other option is to print books that are no longer under copyright. In the USA this means books published prior to 1923. Note that translations of classic works, such as Reeves' 2004 translation of Plato's Republic, are considered original works and thus copyright is still applied to them. This isn't to say that there are not public domain translations of classics; look at Project Gutenberg for many public domain classics. Classics are still quite popular and producing high quality versions might be a way to break into the market.

For more recent works, it is possible to "rebind" them; i.e. change the cover. Converting a paperback to a hardcover does not seem very difficult, although it only solves one problem.

I'm curious if it is possible to produce a high-quality book in the comfort of one's home. To that end, I am considering creating a hand-bound copy of SICP. Thanks to the MIT Press it is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This means that I am free to do my own typesetting and produce my own copy and even sell my own copies! so long as I make my changes available. In this case changes would be the TEX file used to typeset the book for print. If I move forward with the project, I'll do a writeup on it.