Read THE CHINESE BOOK of The Booklover and His Books , free online book, by Harry Lyman Koopman, on

The naturalist, Lloyd Morgan, in one of his lectures threw together on the screen pictures of a humming bird and an insect of the same size, the two looking so much alike as to seem to the casual observer to belong to the same order. Yet they are anatomically far more different than the man and the fish. In much the same way we may be led to suppose that a Chinese book and an occidental paper-bound book are much the same thing in origin as they are to the eye. But here too the likeness is only apparent. One book form has descended from a block of wood and the other from a fold of silk.

The Chinese book is such a triumph of simplicity, cheapness, lightness, and durability that it deserves a more careful study at the hands of our book producers than it has yet received. In fact we do not see why books made on nearly these lines should not be an attractive and popular innovation in our book trade. Approaches, to be sure, have been made to this peculiar book form, but they have been partial imitations, not consistent reproductions. In an illustrated edition of Longfellow’s “Michael Angelo,” published in 1885, Houghton, Mifflin and Company produced a small folio, the binding of which is obviously patterned after that of a Chinese book. But the printing is on every page, and the paper is so stiff that the book will not lie open. In the holiday edition which the same publishers issued in 1896 of Aldrich’s poem, entitled “Friar Jerome’s Beautiful Book,” they produced a volume in which the front folds were not intended to be cut open; but they outdid the Chinese by printing on only one of the pages exposed at each opening of the book, instead of on both, as the Chinese do, thus utilizing only one-fourth of the possible printing surface of the volume. In this case again the paper was stiff and the binding was full leather with heavy tapes for tying. A much closer approach to the Chinese book form was afforded by “The Periodical,” issued by Henry Frowde, in the form which it bore at first. Here we have what may fairly be called a naturalization of the Chinese book idea in the occident. But let us see exactly what that Chinese book form is.

The standard book is printed from engraved wood blocks, each of which is engraved on the side of the board, not on the end like our wood blocks, and for economy is engraved on both its sides. Each of these surfaces prints one sheet of paper, making two pages. The paper, being unsized, is printed on only one side, and the fold is not at the back, as in our books, but at the front. The running headline, as we should call it, with the page number, is printed in a central column, which is folded through when the book is bound, coming half on one page and half on the other. There is always printed in this column a fan-shaped device, called the fish’s tail, whose notch indicates where the fold is to come. It may be remarked in passing that the Chinese book begins on what to us is the last page, and that the lines read from top to bottom and follow one another from right to left. Each page has a double ruled line at top and bottom and on the inner edge. The top and bottom lines and the fish’s tail, being printed across the front fold, show as black lines banding the front edge when the book is bound. The bottom line is taken by the binder as his guide in arranging the sheets, this line always appearing true on the front edge and the others blurred. The top margin has more than twice the breadth of the lower. After the sheets are gathered, holes are punched at proper distances from the back edge four seems to be the regulation number whether the book be large or small, but large books have an extra hole at top and bottom towards the corner from the last hole. These holes are then plugged with rolls of paper to keep the sheets in position, and the top, bottom, and back edges are shaved with a sharp, heavy knife, fifty or more volumes being trimmed at the same stroke. A piece of silk is pasted over the upper and lower corners of the back. Covers, consisting of two sheets of colored paper folded in front like the pages, are placed at front and back, but not covering the back edge, or there is an outer sheet of colored paper with inside lining paper and a leaf of heavy paper between for stiffening. Silk cord is sewn through the holes and neatly tied, and the book is done light in the hand and lying open well, inexpensive and capable with proper treatment of lasting for centuries.

What are the chief defects of the Chinese book from an occidental point of view? The most obvious is that it will not stand alone. Another is that its covers, being soft, are easily crumpled and dog’s-eared. A third is that it is printed on only one side of the paper and therefore wastes space. All these objections must be admitted, but it may be urged with truth that our books, in spite of their relatively costly binding, do not stand alone any too well, and in fact this is a function seldom asked of books anyway. Its covers are soft, but this means at least that they are not so hard and foreign to the material of the book as to tear themselves off after a dozen readings, as is the case with so many of our bindings. There is no danger of breaking the back of a Chinese book on first opening it, for it has no lining of hard glue. As to the utilization of only one side of the paper, it must be remembered that the Chinese paper is very thin, and that this practice makes it possible to secure the advantage of opacity without loading the paper with a foreign and heavy material. Moreover, the thickness of the pasteboard cover is saved on the shelves, and even if a substitute for it is adopted, it is in the form of a light pasteboard case that holds several volumes at once. Such a cover is capable of being lettered on the back, though the Chinese seem not to think this necessary, but put their title labels on the side. Really, the back of the Chinese book is to us its most foreign feature. It is a raw edge, not protected by the cover, and differs from the front only in consisting of the edges of single leaves instead of folds. It is in fact a survival from the days before the invention of paper, when books were printed on silk, the raw edge of which would fray and was therefore consigned to the position where it would have the least wear and would do the least harm if worn.

But there is no reason why, in Europeanizing the Chinese book, the corner guard should not be extended the whole length of the back and bear the ordinary lettering. With this slight difference the Chinese book would be equipped to enter the lists on fairly even terms against the prevailing occidental type of book, which has come down to us from the ancient Roman codex through the parchment book, of which ours is only a paper imitation. In “The Periodical,” referred to, four pages instead of two were printed at once, or, at least, four constitute a fold. The sheets are stitched through with thread they might, of course, have been wire-stitched and then a paper cover is pasted on, as in the case of any magazine or paper-bound book. But in this process the beauty of the Chinese binding disappears, though the Chinese do the same with their cheapest pamphlets. In these days, when lightness and easy handling are such popular features in books, what publisher will take up the book form that for two thousand years has enshrined the wisdom of the Flowery Kingdom, and by trifling adaptations here and there make it his own and ours?