Why We're Built to Last
I wouldn’t advise anyone to judge a book by its cover, but by all means, you should feel free to judge it by how its constructed.
I recall a high school chemistry textbook that had, by year’s end, begun to shed individual pages one-by-one into my backpack. I tried to reorganize them in the correct order, but soon I had dozens of loose leaves of paper tearing and crumpling as they spilled out of the spine. Today I recognize that this rapid decay of a brand new textbook was not the result of my daily diligent studying (I loathed chemistry), but rather the result of a poorly made binding.
While new technology has certainly made book printing more automated and less expensive, it has assuredly come at the expense of both quality and durability.
Of course readers absolutely deserve to have access to the myriad of books out there in the world at affordable prices; however, I wonder if this rationale holds as true given today’s proliferation of (often free) e-books and relatively affordable e-readers?
And what if we consider the current business model of the paperback publishing industry? In this case, if an author’s books don’t sell, the bookseller retains the right to return them back to the publisher. For mass-market fiction books, it’s estimated that up to 85% of these copies end up being returned to the publisher whereafter they are at best pulped and recycled, and at worst thrown in the trash.
Sure, this pattern may represent a kind of ‘circular economy,’ but wouldn’t distributing predominately digital copies of a book circumvent the cycle of producing low-quality materials only to pulp them and reconstitute the low-quality material yet again?
How We're Built to Last
When designing Century Press’ first book, I considered not just the words of the novel, but also the paper the words were written on, how those pages were bound together, and in what manner the collection of pages were covered. I wanted to make choices that would ensure our books could last for generations. At all costs, I wanted to avoid bringing a physical object into the world that felt designed with the expectation that it would be disposed.
You’ll find below three images that compare my 1974 Penguin Paperback edition of The Great Gatsby to our Century Press edition.
We’ll start first with the paper. The first thing you’ll notice about the Penguin edition is the characteristic yellowing of pages that you’d expect from older books. Remarkably, age is not the key determinant of yellowing but rather the content of the paper, in this case wood pulp, which contains lignin. Lignin is a natural occurring polymer that plays a role binding together the cellulose fibers of the wood. When lignin is exposed to sunlight, it undergoes an irreversible oxidation process, which degrades the polymer, making the molecule absorb more light. This reaction, along with oxidation caused by other chemicals present in the production of wood pulp have the effect of turning the pages yellow.
Notably, cotton paper has no lignin! Ergo, a 500-year-old book made with cotton fiber will often appear in better condition than a 50-year-old novel printed on wood pulp.
In addition to the yellowing, you’ll also notice that there are more fiber inclusions in the Penguin edition as well. The cotton paper we use looks far more uniform, and will over time.
Then, there is the difference in how the words print on the paper. The offset print Penguin edition is occasionally less precise than the letterpress version on the right (notice the ‘c’ in closer and the left side of the ‘w’ in wan). The Century Press cotton paper also appears much fluffier, and takes a nice impression from the letterpress; in contrast, the words on the offset printed wood pulp paper on the left appear to ride on top of the paper.
Next, we’ll move on to the binding of the book.
Evident in the Penguin edition is the presence of brittle, dry glue where the book block was pasted into the paper cover. This type of binding is know as ‘perfect binding’ where all the pages and cover are glued together at the spine. Most commonly, ethylene vinyl acetate is used as the glue for perfect binding. While this adhesive cures quickly (beneficial for mass-production), it’s liable to melt in high heat, and crack in very cold temperatures.
In our Century Press edition, on the other hand, the pages of the book have been sewn together with actual thread, rather than a thick smearing of glue. Securing the pages together in this fashion makes the book far more durable than a glued, perfect bound book.
Think, would you feel more comfortable if your pants were glued together or sewn together?
The last point I wanted to touch on is the spine.
In the Robert Redford edition, the amount of glue needed to secure the page has resulted in some seepage between the individual leaves. By consequence, this means that the paperback book can’t be laid flat on a table to read, nor be opened widely without damaging the integrity of the spine.
When the pages of a book are thread-sewn, no glue exists between pages and the book can be opened wide, laid down flat, and read comfortably. Moreover by thread sewing the pages, we are able to add a few aesthetically pleasing elements like a curved spine and a colored headband.
In short, this post describes the books we’re trying to make: long-lasting and better-looking. After all why shouldn’t we want the same for our books as we do for ourselves !
A big thanks to all those who’ve pre-ordered so far. For those who are considering, remember you can save 10% off the cover price when you pre-order today.