Why English books are crummy.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 7 2003 2:24 PM

Bargain-Basement Literature

Why are English books made so badly?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Over the past few weeks, my wife and I have been turning our attic into a library. I've been arranging all our beautiful books by subject and alphabetizing them. The books gleam. The new-built shelves gleam. The hardwood floors gleam. And as we move in the ratty carpets and comfy chairs, the room where I'm writing this is turning into a place I've always dreamed of.

With one exception: The books from England—and only the books from England—are falling to pieces. The unread American books in our collection, along with those from Germany and France and Italy and Mexico, still look brand-new. But even a 4-year-old English hardback has warped covers, a binding that snaps like a saltine when you open it, and pages so brittle and brown that the act of pulling it from the shelf leaves a little confetti pile of paper chips on the floor. It's not just that these English books are junky (aesthetically); it's that they're often unreadable (logistically). They're dying.

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These aren't dime novels, either. The books I've bought in England tend to be high-quality ones. Take Alan Sheridan's acclaimed biography André Gide (Hamish Hamilton, 1998), which I still haven't opened. It looks like a biohazard. The pages are the color of strong tea, and they've curled, springing the book open so that it's bellows-shaped. The possibility that this book will survive long enough to sit in the library of one of my children—which is almost the entire point of my accumulating books the way I do—is nil.

Comparisons are possible. I have an English edition of the first volume of Ian Kershaw's Hitler biography (published by Penguin/Allen Lane in 1998) and an American edition of the second volume (published by Norton shortly thereafter). The American volume is in the same shape it was the day I bought it. The English one has a cracked binding and looks like a stack of 40-year-old newspapers sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard. I also have Larry Siedentop's Democracy in Europe (2000) in both its American and British editions. The American edition, like most books, makes no sound when you open it. The British book creaks, squeaks, pops, and snaps with every turned page. It is not yet 3 years old.

English books were not always inferior. My Oxford Complete Writings of Blake was printed in England in 1966, but it still has milk-white pages, and cradling it in the hands is a joy. My Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable will be a pretty heirloom for my grandchildren, come chemical warfare or high water. Even books from back in the day when the English working classes were not expected to have fancy libraries are holding up nicely, like my copy of Cole and Postgate's The Common People (Methuen and Co., paperback, 1961).

So what happened? England should be the very last country making bad books. In terms of its capabilities, the British print industry may be the most technologically advanced in the world, having assimilated all the tricks of the computer age by the 1980s, a decade before any of its American counterparts did. If the problem is not a technological one, what is it?

I raised this question recently with a number of British publishers, agents, and journalists. A few bristled at the proposition that British books were inferior, but 90 percent assented. Some cited extenuating circumstances. One writer speculated that wartime rationing created bad habits that were hard to break. An agent chalked the problem up to economies of scale: British print runs are smaller than American ones, she says, and "Savings have to be made to keep the unit cost down." Those savings come in the form of cheap binding and bad paper.

James Daunt, owner of Daunt's, on London's Marylebone High Street, has made a study of the problem over the years; he sells both American and British books, used and new. His explanation for the difference in quality? "It's because American publishers sew their bindings, and the cheapskate British publishers don't," he says. "They glue them. All glue dries, eventually. When it dries, the book falls apart. That's why you sew books." The tea-colored pages, meanwhile, are explained by British publishers' unwillingness to use slightly more expensive acid-free paper.

Daunt insists that many British books are well-made—the university presses generally use sewn bindings and acid-free paper, and their reference books remain things of beauty—and that a lot of American books are shoddy, even today. But there is an important difference: In America, bad books tend to be bad books, paperbacks with stallions and décolletage on the dust jacket and titles like Love's Hot Raging Fury. "In the States, you can more or less assume that if a book is a quality book, it will be built to last," Daunt says. "You cannot assume that if you're dealing with certain British publishers." Daunt names some particular offenders: the Penguin group, Random House U.K., Macmillan.

These publishers make books the way they do to save money. But they save a pretty paltry amount, as Daunt found out a few years ago when his bookshop published a paperback of its own. For a very small print run, it cost an extra 30 pence per copy to produce the book with high-quality acid-free paper and carefully sewn bindings. The differential for a hardcover was only slightly higher. Now, 30 pence is about 50 cents—an amount British book lovers would undoubtedly pay for a book that lasted forever, instead of a couple of years. Especially since British books are colossally marked up already: They tend to cost in pounds roughly what American books do in dollars—that is, just over 50 percent more. "So we have the worst of both worlds," says Daunt. "We have expensive books that fall apart."

English literature may be the world's single greatest cultural inheritance. Not everyone would rank Shakespeare and English literature above, say, Beethoven and German music, or Plato and Greek philosophy, or Raphael and Italian painting, but most book lovers would. (I would.) What does it say that the English themselves now care less than any Western people how well their books are made? Probably something bad about England—and probably something bad about the West.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. His book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West will be published in the United States in July.

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