Ten enemies of books, #3: inherent vice

A friend lends me a paperback, The Quiet American, one of her favourites. I open it. The spine cracks, the already-chipped and bent front cover snaps off and yellowing pages fall free.

I feel simultaneously guilty and resentful. It’s not my fault the book is falling apart — it’s made of crappy paper and crappy glue. If it’s any one person’s fault, it’s that of Matthias Koop, who first experimented with the use of wood for making paper in around 1800. Until then (and indeed for some time after) paper was mostly made from cotton, linen and other plant fibres that were relatively pure sources of cellulose.

Cellulose is a fantastically stable material. Wood, on the other hand, contains a material called lignin in addition to cellulose. Lignin is great for trees (it helps give strength to the plant’s structure) but is not so good in a sheet of paper, as it’s fantastically unstable. Koops’s ideas are the basis of most modern papermaking practices. Though, it wasn’t until 1841 that Charles Fenerty, a Nova Scotian, actually produced the first ground-wood paper, so perhaps the blame lies with him as well.

From then on it was kind of all over, red rover, particularly when groundwood paper pulp was treated with chemical processes like chlorine bleach, sulphate processing and rosin size. The invention of “perfect” binding – the irony of that name! —accelerated the self-destruction of books even further. Instead of being folded and stitched together, looseleaf sheets of paper are glued together along the spine. The cover is also glued directly to the spine. In a traditionally bound book, there is a hollow between the spine covering and the text block, allowing the structure to move more easily. Each time a perfect-bound book is opened, the spine and cover are creased anew.

But who can blame Koop and Fenerty, really? Cheap books, produced quickly, allowed the spread of literacy — particularly amongst the poorer classes. Penguin Books launched its range of cheap paperbacks in 1935; in ten months over one million Penguin books had been printed. Given that at one stage in the nineteenth century Egyptian mummies were being imported to the United States so that their linen wrappings could be recycled into paper (albeit for packaging purposes), it’s difficult to begrudge their desire to make things faster, better, easier.

My friend’s copy of The Quiet American is a Penguin book, printed in 1968. All other things being equal, this paperback will be easily outlived by all the known copies of the Gutenberg Bible, printed centuries before. Even I will outlive this book. I buy my friend a replacement copy anyway.

A crappy copy of a wonderful book.