Thursday, March 24, 2022

The Way It Crumbles: The Charm of Old Books


 That's the way the cookie crumbles, or should I say the book? When the cover fell off my 19th-century edition of the Liddell and Scott Greek dictionary, which I'd purchased cheaply at a used bookstore long ago, I was philosophical about it.  Nothing lasts forever, I chirped.

But I am less chirpy now that some of my paperback classics are crumbling. I knew that paper didn't last forever, but that didn't apply to my books. 

Here is how it happens.  The pages turn yellow and acidic.  Sometimes the covers fall off. My husband recently read a crumbling old Penguin of Mrs. Gaskell's North and South, though I urged him to read my newer Oxford.  No, he prefers the compact old Penguins. And indeed I do not know why Penguins and Oxfords are now so large.   He did not enjoy North and South.  I wonder: Did the foxed pages influence him? 

The foxed pages of my 1954 Penguin of Zola's Germinal, translated by Leonard Tancock, actually hurt my hands. I am allergic to acidic old paper.  But if I replace it with a new Penguin, I also get a new translation, and I am nostalgic for my original reading experience.  Perhaps that is why my husband is a faithful reader of old Penguins.


My Avon paperback copy of  Elizabeth Bowen's Eva Trout is fragile, but the error on the first page - lines published out of order - gave me an excuse to quit before the book did.

What do you think of this puzzle of disordered lines?

"This is where we were to have spent the honeymoon," had pulled up the car on a grass track running along the Eva Trout said, suddenly, pointing across the water.  She edge of a small lake.
Of course they should be arranged as follows.

"This is where we were to have spent the honeymoon," Eva Trout said, suddenly, pointing across the water.  She had pulled up the car on a grass track running along the edge of a small lake.
Many wish to go back in time so they can be young.   I want to go back in time so my books will be young again! 


  1. I hate that too, but I thought US books were acid free. Penguin is now, I think, American owned, so maybe this will soon be a thing of the past. My late partner was a newspaper sub-editor, who had worked for some time in UK publishing. He said British publishers only saved a few pence a copy, at the time, on using acidic paper. He thought it a disgrace. I collected Dorothy Dunnett's novels in the Constable editions. Ten years later these hardbacks had orange paper. The one American edition I had didn't suffer from this and its paper is still white.

    1. It is a big deal these days when a publisher like Library of America uses acid-free paper. My old hardcovers are in pretty good shape, but the paper isn't as good as LoA's. The paperbacks are having issue. And the publishers don't even make money using this bad paper? It IS a disgrace!

    2. I agree, the consumer law her in the UK says a product should be fit for purpose. In any sane world a book that doesn't last ten years would break the law. However, who has the money to sue global vompanies, especially in US where the judiciary are political appointments.

    3. Yes, the whole thing would be too exhausting, and the book industry is so frail anyway, except for the romance sector, from what I hear.
      We make do with what we've got! But it is disconcerting.

  2. If you compare the size of the type - in British editions at least - you'll see one reason why Penguins and Oxfords are now so large. I'm helping a very aged friend downsize and old paperbacks have all had to go because of the size of the print. I wonder how Victorians managed - double-columns of very small print with candles or oil or gas lamps to read by.
    British publishers may only saved a few pence a copy by using pulp paper, but perhaps they thought that making people have to buy new copies every few years was another gain, Clare Shepherd.

    1. The newer Penguins and Oxfords are easier on the eye, I admit. Print size matters. as does the spacing between lines. Perhaps the women companions in Victorian novels must read aloud to old women because of their vision problems.

      It must be terrible to part with one's paperback collection. Now THAT'S something they never mention when they talk about aging., Not long ago I paused by the large-print shelves and then hurried by: it's not time yet! .

      Yes, they're using cheap paper so I will replace Germinal!

  3. You mentioned Penguin editions so I had to say hi! I have many of the Penguin editions with the black spines and a color stripe on top -- I definitely see foxing on some. My newer UK editions (the lovely light green ones) do not have any mention of acid-free or not, but they have the FSC mark of the Forest Stewardship Council.
    Went to and read about the sustainability project and the company's goals for reducing their carbon footprint significantly by 2030, but in neither the book nor this link do I see if these editions are acid-free.

    I do believe that living in this rather dry area of Colorado will be better for my books than the moisture of Michigan and my home there. For a bibliophile obsessive, that's almost enough incentive to move to the Sahara. Either way, these editions will outlast me!

    I do have a few of those even older Penguins, with the mostly white cover with orange or blue stripes. One I got in Iceland -- from the 1930s -- is less foxed than some of the newer editions, but the bindings definitely get more brittle, but are not breaking.

    I prefer paperbacks in general.

    Alas -- as you say, Kat, nothing lasts forever. I rest easier knowing that the libraries of the world will preserve the world's great literature and traditions, and have some notion of it all being digitized and thus somehow will be launched into space or be carried on a future star cruiser to preserve human knowledge, experience, and endeavor and thus dodge the whole red giant phase of our sun's lifespan.

    That's millions or billions of years from now, of course, and who knows how long we will make it as a species. Whew... didn't mean for a simple Penguin edition to take me to the edges of time, space, and human survival! Back to my cup of coffee!

    1. I didn't know about the new GREEN Penguins. Is it time for a trip to the UK? Astonishing how the different eras of printing affect the longevity of the books. And I'll bet Colorado IS better for preserving the books. In the south, books mold in the humidity unless you have the AC on all the time,or so I've heard.

      I adore my Penguins, but my very few orange paperbacks from the '50s and '60s have "issues." I cannot even throw out my crumbling copy of "Museuem Pieces," because the design of the book is adorable.

      So now I collect crumbling Penguins?