Translating the Catalogue (or Catalog)

Some of the big excitement at the Newberry this week involves an exhibition of the work of Norma Rubovits, one of America’s greatest living paper marblers. For those of you who just said “Wha?”: no, I am not going to give you an explanation of the history and technique of paper marbling. You can get that by coming to the exhibition, which opens September 30. But it does give me an excuse to go over a few more terms you may find in booksellers’ catalogues (or catalogs, depending on where you went to school).

SILK ENDPAPERS: How can papers be silk? And is this the same as a “cloth” binding? The endpapers, you’ll recall, are blank pages at the front or back of a book. The first two and last two are often connected: one is pasted to the cover (the pastedown), and the next is a free endpaper. They don’t have to be plain paper; they can have a satin or silk finish or even a satin or silk covering, especially done in deluxe editions. “Cloth” as you’ll recall, is what covers a book if it is like the majority of books we refer to as “hardcover”.

MARBLED PAPER: Marbled paper is a specially made paper with a slick feel to it, and a pattern that is meant to look like colored marble. (The veins of color running among larger masses of color is the main source of the name). Done by floating color on the surface of a liquid, it produces a planned but unique pattern each time it’s used. One popular design for Victorian deluxe edition was the leather or imitation leather spine and corners (see the column on half leather) and then marbled paper for the rest of the cover. Marbled paper is also often used for endpapers, and a proper edition of Tristram Shandy should have a marbled page stuck somewhere toward the middle.

TOP EDGE: This is the top of the “block” or the part of the book that is not the cover, the block of paper between the covers. The top edge is, natch, the top of the block. This is usually mentioned because it has been gilded (Which, besides being pretty, keeps dust out and keeps your grubby fingerprints to a minimum when you’re pulling the book off the shelf, and you ARE pulling by the top edge and NOT by the top of the spine, right? Because the top of the spine tears out and really lowers the price I can charge and customer tear it worse pulling it off the shelf and pretty soon the whole spine…where were we?) or because the first edition of the book had the top edge tinted pink and the later editions had yellow, or some such.

FORE EDGE: If you read about Top Edge, maybe you can figure out the “fore edge” is the side of the book block opposite the spine; the edge that faces away from you if you put the book on the shelf properly. It is usually mentioned when it also is gilded or because that book contains a “fore-edge painting” This means someone, probably in the 18th or early 19th century, forced the book into a special kind of clamp so that the fore-edge, instead of presenting a flat surface, presented a slanted one. If a picture is painted on this slanted surface, when the the book is returned to its natural shape, no one can see the painting. Someone has to bend the book back in that unnatural shape to find the picture. It’s a secret painting, you see, useful for hiding DaVinci Code-like clues, or just having around to amaze visitors. A genuine antique fore-edge painting enhances the value of the book as object, though it does nothing for the text.

BOTTOM EDGE: I have never seen any bookdealer discuss the bottom edge. If it’s been gilded, then the other edges usually have as well and the catalogue will just say “gilt-edged” They CAN be marbled, but usually the other edges have been done that way as well, so “edges marbled” is what you get. It seems unjust to me that the bottom edge rreceives so little attention. I’ll start printing up some T-shirts to protest—”Don’t Hide Your Bottom Edge!”, maybe—as soon as I finish these signs for the “Free The Front-Endpapers!” rally. 

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