10 Terms to Describe the Anatomy of a Book

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What we think of as a book—a cover supporting a block of pages, backed up by a spine—is one the most successful technological innovations in the history of the world. After all, it was humankind's primary means of information storage and retrieval for over a thousand years.

Books have a lot of admirers. Many people love books not only because of what is written in them, but because they're works of art. And people who love things like to name them. Very thoroughly.

That's why books like John Carter's classic 1952 volume, ABC for Book Collectors, exist. It's a glossary of terms used to describe books. It's far from complete, but it's as delightful for book nerds as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is for grammar nerds.

Let's look at some of the best terms in the book.

1. Leaves

No, no, they're not green. This is another name for the pages of a book.

2. Endpapers

The papers glued to the inside cover of a hardback book are called endpapers. The side of the page that is glued to the cover is a paste-down and the other side is a free endpaper.

3. Edges

This means the edges of the leaves. It's not a very exciting term in and of itself, but it opens the door for amazing things, like gilt edges and painted fore-edges. If you've never seen a book with a tiny painting on the edges of the pages, you're missing out.

4. Wire lines and chain lines

It used to be common practice in papermaking to lay the wet paper pulp in a frame criss-crossed with wire and shake the water out of it. Nowadays only fancy paper is made this way. The wide-spaced lines are called wire lines. The closer-together lines perpendicular to the wire lines are called chain lines. If you have an old book or a piece of high-end stationery handy, try holding one of the pages up to the light to see if you can see the wire lines and chain lines.

5. Signatures

Much could be said about the way books are assembled. Usually groups of sixteen pages, called signatures, are sewn together. Carter says this term comes from a small notation in the corner of each group of pages that was meant to help the bookbinder put them in the correct order.

6. Manuscript

A manuscript, in book-collecting circles, means a book that was written by hand, not printed.

7. Head-piece

This is an ornament (sometimes called a vignette) printed at the beginning of a chapter or to mark a new section of the book.

8. Half-title

Also called the bastard title, this is the name for the leaf in front of the title page. You probably didn't know there was a name for that.

9. Foxing

This is the word for the yellowish-brown discolorations you sometimes see on the pages of old books. The pages would be described as "foxed."

10. Diaper

Not that kind of diaper. This refers to a diamond or lozenge pattern on some bindings.