Sep 09 2010

How to Break In a Book

I’m a scribbler by trade. I exchange words for cash. Which probably explains why I love books. Not just books-as-literature, mind—books-as-objects, too. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no neo-Luddite. I was writing on a computer back in the day when the 3½-inch floppy was state-of-the-art storage. I was quick to embrace the Internet, too. I’ve been a paid columnist online for more than a decade. I haven’t subscribed to a print magazine in years. And I have hundreds of PDFs of rare volumes I’d never be able to get my hands on otherwise, including a nearly complete run of the Naval Chronicle and an early edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. But I still have books—real books—on my shelves, thousands of them. There’s a feeling of permanence about a bound volume that no PDF can match.

So I hope you’ll understand my impatience with folks who don’t know how to care for books. And if the volumes I borrow from the local public library are any indication, this now includes most librarians. Once upon a time, librarians gently broke in new books before lending them out, thereby insuring that the volumes would withstand repeated borrowings. Nowadays, though, librarians are too busy maintaining their wireless networks and serving coffee and doughnuts to their patrons to have time to break in a new acquisition. The result? Perhaps half the books I borrow already have broken backs, the almost inevitable result of abruptly wrenching a new book open in order to make it lie flat. In as little as a few months—a few years at most—these tortured volumes will separate at the spine. Then they’ll have to be taped together or discarded.

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. While breaking in a new book takes a few minutes, it’s not like breaking a horse. Moreover, it’s time well spent. Do you still buy books? And do you plan to keep them after you’ve read them? Then you’ll want to get the most from your investment. Here’s how it’s done…

I’ll use a large-format paperback as an example, and paperbacks are even more vulnerable to abuse than hardcovers. But the break-in procedure is the same for both, with just one exception—and that will become clear as we proceed.

The job is easiest if you have the proper tool. It’s called a bone, and bones were originally made from…you guessed it…bone, shaped and polished bone. Nowadays bones are made of plastic, but they’re still called bones.

Dem Bones

You don’t have a bone? No problem. Any smooth, rigid implement will work. In a pinch, you can even use the edge of your hand. As I do in the photos below. Ready? Good! Then let’s begin. And if you’re breaking in a paperback, you’ll begin with the cover. (This is the “one exception” I mentioned above.) Start by locating the crease pressed into the front and back covers, near the spine. Can’t find any creases? Then create them with the tip of a butter knife or other blunt instrument, using a straightedge as a guide.

Guide Line

Happily, most modern paperbacks come pre-creased. This crease is analogous to the U-shaped depression, or “joint,” in the front and back cover of a hardback, but the covers of hardback books don’t need special attention. Paperback covers do, however. So place your straightedge along the joint, holding it firmly in place while you open the book’s front cover. Run the edge of your hand along the inside surface to finish the job.

Bend It Back

Repeat the procedure with the back cover. The real work begins now. Hold the book so the spine rests on the table, with the front and rear covers lying open. Turn the first page back and fold it against the front cover, running your fingers along the inside edge of the page adjacent to the spine (this is known as the “gutter” ). Apply firm but gentle pressure. Next, turn your attention to the last page, opening it against the back cover and pressing it down with your fingers. Now it’s back to the front of the book. Open the second page. Press it down. Move on to the next-to-the-last page. Open. Press. And keep alternating, page by page, front and back, until you reach the middle. The book should now lie open on the table before you.

Stage One

But you’re not done yet. One by one, take the pages on the right and turn them over to the left, pressing gently along the gutter each time until the book is closed. Now open the book to the middle pages again and repeat the process in reverse, turning the pages on the left over to the right, pressing them gently home. When you’re done, your book will look something like the book in the picture on the left below:

Broken In and Not Broken

You should now be able to open the book for reading without having to fight to keep it open and without damaging the binding. (If you can’t, if the book springs closed, just repeat the process outlined above. That should do the trick.)

OK. That’s it. But having mentioned the bone earlier, I suppose I should illustrate its use. Here goes:

Dem Bones Redux

You glide the bone along the page, pressing it close to the gutter. If you keep the bone clean, you’ll avoid transferring oil from your fingers to the pages. This is important if the book in question is a rarity or otherwise valuable. As always, use firm but gentle pressure to avoid damaging the binding.

That didn’t take long, did it? So do your books a favor. Break them in before they’re broken down. If you like to see you library grow and if you return to old favorites again and again, you’ll be glad you took the trouble.

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