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View Full Version : Why do European books have the words on the spine the opposite way around?


henrijohns
05-03-2007, 10:58 AM
On American published books, when the books are face up in a pile, you can read the spines. European books read correctly only if the book is face down. Why the difference?

x-ray vision
05-03-2007, 11:07 AM
The tradition to write on the spine top-to-bottom is older; its roots can be traced back to the time when books were few. The reasoning was that if a book is lying on the table (or in a small stack) face-up, reading its title should be easy.

The tradition to write on the spine bottom-to-top is younger; it’s more concerned with how easy it is for the bookshelf owner to handle the book. Reading bottom-to-top is easier, because this direction is more in keeping with the European left-to-right writing tradition, which is especially apparent when there are several lines of text on the spine (an urge to read the lines left-to-right is only natural).

The Western Europe and the US opted for the more venerable tradition, while the Eastern Europe and Russia aligned themselves with the more modern one. What the reader should remember is that both traditions are centuries old.

On June 5, 2002 the Intergovernmental Council for Standardization, Metrology, and Certification (which includes all former Soviet republics except Baltic states) adopted the intergovernmental standard GOST 7.84–2002 “Print Editions, Covers, and Bindings. General Requirements and Design Rules”. In Russia this standard has been effective since January 1, 2003.

The text of the standard contains the clause 6.2 that reads in flagrant defiance of the Russian book printing tradition: “the data on the cover ought to be printed […] top-to-bottom”. The thin silver lining here is that the silliness of the provision is redeemed by one’s discretion to disregard it.

In the end everyone will stick to their guns: folks in the West will cling to the belief that the title on the spine should be readable when the book is lying face-up; local folks will remain committed to the belief that when the book is lying face-up, its spine is of little value, because you can read all you want on the cover.

http://www.artlebedev.com/mandership/122/

naita
05-03-2007, 11:55 AM
So it's not really a European thing at all, is it?

I have a couple hundred books, and only one of the ones printed in Norwegian have the title that way, a translation of Truth revealed, and only one printed in English, the Louvre visitors guide.

Is it common in France, or just at the Louvre?

Mops
05-03-2007, 12:09 PM
BTW the statement by one Artemy Lebedev should be taken with a grain of salt - if I rightly recollect most non-British Western European books also have the spine title top-to-bottom.

WAG: the Anglo method makes sense for a stack of books lying on a table, but for most other publishers this is not a major consideration, because

- the main purpose of book spine titles is to be read when the book is standing in a bookshelf
- that's the usual presentation for books in bookshops, too
- when a book lies on a table, you don't need the spine title as you can read the front cover

Anecdotally: being used to mostly German books it just feels more right to me making me head lean to the left to read titles on a bookshelf.

Also it feels more right for me to read the spine titles of sequential volumes in a bookshelf, with the head inclined to the left, as

top of my field ov view
Brehms Tierleben Bd. I
Brehms Tierleben Bd. II
Brehms Tierleben Bd. III
Brehms Tierleben Bd. IV
Brehms Tierleben Bd. V
...
bottom of my field of view

instead as, with the Anglo method, with the head inclined to the right, as

(top of my field of view
...
Brehms Tierleben Bd. V
Brehms Tierleben Bd. IV
Brehms Tierleben Bd. III
Brehms Tierleben Bd. II
Brehms Tierleben Bd. I
bottom of my field of view

as I am used to read sorted sequences top-to-bottom, relative to the orientation of my field of view.

As a matter of interest, does it feel right the other way round for people used todeal with mostly British/American books but who also have experiance with handling other books?

Annie-Xmas
05-03-2007, 12:13 PM
This applies to CD spines too. When I read my collection from the spines, my head goes back and forth like a bobble-head doll.

Mops
05-03-2007, 12:19 PM
One other aspect that just occurred to me (don't know if it had any influence on spine title orientation conventions):

If you stand in front of a bookshelf, handling books with your right arm, it's a bit more convenient for your head to lean left than to lean right, as neck and shoulder muscles are a bit less in each others' way.

x-ray vision
05-03-2007, 12:25 PM
BTW the statement by one Artemy Lebedev should be taken with a grain of salt
Looking over the quote I posted, I have to agree.


Reading bottom-to-top is easier, because this direction is more in keeping with the European left-to-right writing tradition, which is especially apparent when there are several lines of text on the spine (an urge to read the lines left-to-right is only natural).
How the hell is top to bottom closer to left to right than bottom to top is?

Colophon
05-03-2007, 12:36 PM
Is it really "European v US"? If it is then the UK definitely seems to follow the US method - I just checked my office bookshelf and out of maybe 200+ books, I can't find a single one that doesn't have the text running top-to-bottom. (Oh, apart from a couple of really thick volumes that have space to run the title horizontally.)

Exapno Mapcase
05-03-2007, 12:40 PM
Is it really "European v US"? If it is then the UK definitely seems to follow the US method - I just checked my office bookshelf and out of maybe 200+ books, I can't find a single one that doesn't have the text running top-to-bottom. (Oh, apart from a couple of really thick volumes that have space to run the title horizontally.)
I thought you Brits insisted on separating yourselves from the Euopeans. :)

Hypnagogic Jerk
05-03-2007, 12:47 PM
Looking at the few books that are on my bookshelves here, I see that those I have that were published in the US or in Canada in English have the title printed top to bottom (i.e. if I put them face up, the title is upside up), while those published in Europe (continental) or Quebec have the title printed bottom to top (i.e. face up, the title would be upside down), except for one novel that has the title printed top to bottom. And my Bible has its title written perpendicularily to the spine (i.e. the title is upside up when the book is standing up). I'll have to check what happens with the books I have at work, and those I have at my parents' home.

Interestingly enough, all my DVDs have the title printed top to bottom.

Mops
05-03-2007, 12:51 PM
Looking over the quote I posted, I have to agree.



How the hell is top to bottom closer to left to right than bottom to top is?

I can relate to that - imagine some books on a shelf, all of whose titles have two lines.

1. Spine titles top-to-bottom - you lean your head to the right and see

top of your field of view - right side of the shelf
(8) title of book #4 - line #1
(7) title of book #4 - line #2

(6) title of book #3 - line #1
(5) title of book #3 - line #2

(4) title of book #2 - line #1
(3) title of book #2 - line #2

(2) title of book #1 - line #1
(1) title of book #1 - line #2
bottom of your field of view - left side of the shelf

If you scan the spine titles of the books from left to right, you have to read the lines in the sequence 2-1-4-3-6-5-8-7

2. Spine titles bottom-to-top - you lean your head to the left and see

top of your field of view - left side of the shelf
(1) title of book #1 - line #1
(2) title of book #1 - line #2

(3) title of book #2 - line #1
(4) title of book #3 - line #2

(5) title of book #3 - line #1
(6) title of book #3 - line #2

(7) title of book #4 - line #1
(8) title of book #4 - line #2
bottom of your field of view - right side of the shelf

If you scan the spine titles of the books from left to right, you have to read the lines in the sequence 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, i.e. without any change in vertical scanning direction.

panamajack
05-03-2007, 12:55 PM
If you stand in front of a bookshelf, handling books with your right arm, it's a bit more convenient for your head to lean left than to lean right, as neck and shoulder muscles are a bit less in each others' way.

And if you hold the books in your left arm, it's the other way around. I don't see much difference (though if forced to an answer, I think most people would want their right arm free.)

edit - as to the multiple lines on a book title, why are you forced to read in reverse order? The only possible advantage I see is with multiple volumes, which is minor at best.

The one European book I have here (a German cookbook) has the title top-to-bottom, though.

Myglaren
05-03-2007, 01:25 PM
This applies to CD spines too. When I read my collection from the spines, my head goes back and forth like a bobble-head doll.

In my CD collection there is only one title that is printed the opposite way to the rest - a Eurythmics one. I just insert it upside down into the rack.

Charlie Tan
05-03-2007, 02:02 PM
EEurope is a big place. I've noticed this with books printed in Spain and France. Never Scandinavian books. We use the same way our Anglo-Amiracan friends do.

Enterprise
05-03-2007, 02:04 PM
On American published books, when the books are face up in a pile, you can read the spines. European books read correctly only if the book is face down. Why the difference?

I just checked the spines of the books I have, both English and German, as well as assorted other languages. I think it bears mentioning that although the OP has it true in the majority of cases, there is a significant overlap -- I have about thirty American volumes where the spine is printed bottom to top, and about forty German books where the spine is printed top to bottom. I suppose it's one of those old-time conventions where everybody's forgotten the reason, if there ever was one.

Incidentally, I agree with tschild about it feeling more natural to read bottom to top, for the reasons he describes. And like Annie X-Mas, I feel like chicken with the shakes when looking for a book on my shelves...I wish to Og they'd standardize the direction...

CalMeacham
05-03-2007, 03:17 PM
Just to throw a monkey wrench into this whole thing, I have some American books where the titles are written sideways the "wrong" way. They're in the minority, but they're there. I usually just shelve them upside-down so that all the titles face the same way.

Alive At Both Ends
05-03-2007, 03:57 PM
I can't find a single one that doesn't have the text running top-to-bottom. (Oh, apart from a couple of really thick volumes that have space to run the title horizontally.)
I used to own a book with the title printed horizontally on the spine - but upside down.

It was a mistake, of course. The whole cover was upside down. It would have been pulped by the publishing house, but my sister worked for the publisher at the time and one of the perks of the job was that employees could take faulty books home.

Tim@T-Bonham.net
05-03-2007, 04:02 PM
Just to throw a monkey wrench into this whole thing, I have some American books where the titles are written sideways the "wrong" way. They're in the minority, but they're there. I usually just shelve them upside-down so that all the titles face the same way.I agree with Cal -- I don't think this is exclusively European vs. USA as the OP says.

Earlier today I was at the library (a small branch library in a Midwestern USA city) in the shelves containing pet books, home repair & remodeling, and landscaping & decorating. Nearly all american-published books. But I noticed quite a few with the titles running upside-down compared to the rest. And there may have been more -- I found at least 1 book where someone had shelved it to look like the rest, with the binding title running the same direction as the rest, but when I took the book out to look at it, it was upside down.

So it appears that publishers do this either way -- there's no absolute rule for European vs. USA.

Mighty_Girl
05-04-2007, 02:53 AM
Funny. I just look at the shelf in front of me. Books from different parts of the world (including many from different European countries, the US and Latin America), the only ones printed bottom to top are the Latin American ones. Strange.

Lionne
05-04-2007, 11:33 AM
It makes perfect sense to me...I work in a bookstore. When shelving, we move from Poe to Quindlen to Rowling.
Walking forward, with our head tilted to the right, it's easier to see in front of you. If the titles were written bottom upwards, we'd read the spines with our heads tilted to the left, yet we're still walking forward. It's harder for something in the way to catch your eye.

Zeriel
05-04-2007, 01:03 PM
In keeping with the discussion of "the spine of a book on a table is irrelevant because you can read the cover", I personally shelve my books so that I can read them eastern-european-style, that is, bottom-to-top. Sure, many of them are "Upside down", but really, that doesn't matter because if you can see the front cover of a book on your bookshelf, why haven't you bought more books to fill the space up?

Ignatz
05-04-2007, 07:47 PM
I asked this same question here a year or more ago and none of these folks happened to see it and give such fine answers. It pays to stick around. Thanks.

Cal & t-b, I have to confess, every time I peruse the shelves at Barnes & Noble and see one of the European-style, or whatever, spine titles, I turn the book upside down so it reads right(ly). Did it this week.

amarone
05-04-2007, 10:39 PM
Is it really "European v US"? If it is then the UK definitely seems to follow the US method - I just checked my office bookshelf and out of maybe 200+ books, I can't find a single one that doesn't have the text running top-to-bottom. (Oh, apart from a couple of really thick volumes that have space to run the title horizontally.)Likewise. I have just checked 200+ books bought in the UK and the US and none of them are "upside down".

groman
05-05-2007, 07:08 AM
*stares at a paperback copy of The Soloist by Mark Salzman*


*blink*

*picks it up, turns it top-to-bottom and then bottom-to-top*

You guys are nuts.

TheLoadedDog
05-05-2007, 07:15 AM
I've never noticed it being European or from anywhere else. To me, it seems quite rare. In fact, just looking at the covers of the books on my bookshelf, the only book like that that I have was published by the US government.

Side question: why do American coins have the image on the two sides upside-down in relation to each other? I don't think I've seen that anywhere else.

tbdi
05-05-2007, 09:28 AM
If the spines are printed top to bottom then they are easy to read when stacked on a table or when in a bookcase. If they are printed bottom to top then then they are marginally easier to read when on the bookcase but much harder to read when stacked flat. The argument that a book laying flat exposes the cover only works for the top book an I rarely have only one book out.

Top to bottom therefore makes more sense to me but in the grand scheme of things this is pretty far down the list of concerns!

Colibri
05-05-2007, 11:45 AM
I just checked my bookshelves, which have about 1000 volumes.

Of books in English published in English speaking countries, including the US, UK, Australia, NZ, and South Africa, which are the great majority, all but one, an obscure bibliography published in New Zealand, have the titles top to bottom.

Almost all books in French (one exception) or Spanish (all those published outside of Panama, including Spain and several Latin American countries) have the titles bottom to top.

The major exceptions are books published in Panama. Some of the books in English read from bottom to top, and some of the books in Spanish read from top to bottom; others follow the "normal" convention for their language. It seems almost random which convention is applied. I think the prevalence here of books in both languages has tended to confuse the issue when it comes time to chose one or the other.

yabob
05-05-2007, 11:58 AM
Side question: why do American coins have the image on the two sides upside-down in relation to each other? I don't think I've seen that anywhere else.
Hmmm. I happen to have some Thai coins in my desk, and they're minted that way, too. The logical explanation would be that if you are examining one side of the coin, and flip it over to read the other side, it's still right side up (provided that you flip it over vertically, which seems the "natural" thing to do).

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