Judging a Book by its Spine

book spines

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is one of the most commonly used phrases to derive from the world of literature. Yet covers are often what initially attracts browsers to a book and many a blog post has been dedicated to comparing their images. The importance of iconic book covers to our wider culture is clear — notable cover designer Chip Kidd has even given his own TED talk.

But what about a book’s spine?

Technically part of the cover, yes, but in many ways a book’s spine is an entity unto itself. Although faceouts–a display technique where a stack of copies of the same book are shelved with the front cover facing outward–are common practice in bookshops, by and large, books are most commonly shelved with only the spine visible. This means that, even where an enticing cover was the main reason we purchased a book, we are often quick to hide that cover away in the home shelving process.

But–I posit that this isn’t a bad thing.

Book spines have charm of their own. The most notable of these charms, in my opinion, being the feel of running one’s finger along all the spines on a shelf. The tactile nature of the experience, when paired with the reading of the titles and the occasional sliding out of the more intriguing specimens, is something all avid book browsers must surely relish.

In Diane Duane’s So You Want to Be a Wizard the main character, Nita, discovers the titular book (a manual on wizardry) when running her fingers down a shelf in just this way. By taking the Wizard’s Oath inside the book, Nita is opened to a world of power and danger. So You Want to Be a Wizard having been published in 1983, Nita’s wizarding manual was to me what Harry Potter’s Hogwarts letter was to the generation that followed. Yet Nita’s manual resonated with me not only for the knowledge it held or the magic it allowed her to access, but also because I already understood that browsing through the spines on a shelf of unfamiliar books could be unexpectedly transformational. I believed in this possibility more than I believed in a wardrobe into Narnia, more than I believed in a rabbit hole to Wonderland, more than I believed in a golden ticket wrapped within a chocolate bar.

I believe that book spines are as important as their covers. They hold a book together. They tell us the essentials, both the book’s title and author. And, if the book is not a new one, they tell us, by virtue of their creases, how the last person read it–whether with care or abandon.

When it comes to the physical object, a book without a cover is still a book.  A book without a spine is just pages.

Liz Gillett

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2 thoughts on “Judging a Book by its Spine

  1. Jay E. says:

    My wife has the uncanny ability to choose wonderful books for me to read simply by their spine. While I may spend hours reading dust jackets and back covers, she’ll spend minutes looking for an interesting spine. Her last success? A paperback edition of “The Clockwork Universe” by Edward Dolnick.

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