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Book spine census
Posted by: PrinzHilde (
Date: March 05, 2010 05:33PM

Today I was standing in front of my book shelves, and something strange occured to me. On all book spines (leaving out those wide enough to accomodate horizontal writing) from English language publishers, the direction of the lettering is top-to-bottom, whereas all German books have their inscriptions bottom-to-top.

With a few exeptions. While all English books I own are consistent, the German ones aren't. One publisher (Reclam) labels all its books top-to-bottom, but in every other case it seems a bit erratic. One book is bottom-to-top, but another one, same publisher, same series, even the same author, is suddenly top-to-bottom. Statistically I would say maybe two percent of my German books have the "false" direction on their spine.

Now, I can understand a cultural difference between books in different languages. But why are English books completly consistent, whereas German publishers seem to allow apparent glitches? Is it only that I own let's say ten times more German-written books than English-written ones, and therefore I have a better overview? Are English books screened for correct covers before they are exported to Germany?

Please, tell me what you see on your book shelves. Do you also have to swivel your head around when you want to read the titles on all the spines? Do you know English books with a bottom-to-top spine?

And finally: if you shelve German books horizontally with the front on top, the writing on the spines will be upside down. So I tend to avoid that. Are English language readers possibly more prone to staple their books one on top of the other?

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: MuseSusan (
Date: March 06, 2010 03:38AM

All of my books are in English, and they all have their spines lettered top-to-bottom. I tend to place nearly all my books standing up in bookshelves, so all the writing is indeed sideways. This arrangement of the lettering makes sense to me since, if I have to read it sideways, it's easier to read from the top down than from the bottom up (since multiple lines of text are read from the top down). It could be more comfortable just because I'm used to it, though.

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: SkidMarks (
Date: March 06, 2010 11:35AM

After a quick scan of our library, I haven't seen any bottom-to-top titles. There are another 4 bookcases scattered in other rooms that I need to check, but it does look as if there is a convention for English-language books.

I will ask mrs. SkidMarks to check at work.

Update mrs. SkidMarks has confirmed that English-language books printed in other countries frequently have the title printed bottom-to-top. They just shelve them upside down to keep the ease of scanning for customers.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 03/06/2010 12:22PM by SkidMarks.

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: delacuesta (
Date: March 06, 2010 12:18PM

Anglosaxon printers, together with the Dutch and Flemish (I'm not certain about the Walloon) adhere to a normative (ISO 6357) that stipulates the Top-to-Bottom (TB) orientation, i.e. one reads the spines on a shelf with the head tilted to the right. An exception to this rule counts as a misprint or as a design error. The normative exists as well in Germany (DIN) and possibly in other countries, but is generally ignored by book printers there.

The TB orientation is practical when the book is lying flat, and possibly also when books are on a bookshelf without ordering. However, when trying to find a book on an ordered shelf (such as in a library), this is awkward. When browsing the spines, B will be on top of A, C on top of B, etcetera, which is contrary to the normal reading order.

That is why in most continental European countries (Germany, France, Spain, Italy, etcetera), printers adhere to the traditional medieval BT orientation which makes the browsing of spines easier.

The language of the book is hardly decisive, even if it implies a different target country. E.g. I once bought Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving in a Granada bookstall; it was printed in Spain and has a corresponding BT spine, despite being in English.

Note that for CDs and DVDs, the ISO 6357 norm is more universally adhered to. This is because they are more often stacked vertically.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 03/06/2010 12:18PM by delacuesta.

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: PrinzHilde (
Date: March 06, 2010 03:16PM

Germans not adhering to DIN norms? The world is coming to an end.

(Well, this is regrettably true for classical letterpress printing. The one with moveable lead letters. The last commercial printers in Europe is on the brink of closing his shop. At least that is what he said when I was there on a visit last summer.)

I have a few CDs and one DVD with bottom-to-top spines.

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: delacuesta (
Date: March 06, 2010 07:22PM

PrinzHilde Wrote:

> I have a few CDs and one DVD with bottom-to-top
> spines.

Indeed, many exceptions exist.

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: CannibalRabbit (
Date: March 07, 2010 09:11AM

CDs, DVDs, and Books in our collections all seem to follow top down, I haven't found any exceptions yet.

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: SkidMarks (
Date: March 07, 2010 09:57AM

I vaguely remember an album by Roger Ruskin Spear had the first half of its title printed top down and the bottom half bottom up, but this was probably either to confuse or amuse rather than a schizophrenic typesetter.

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: geg (
Date: March 09, 2010 01:42PM

Loving having an excuse for staring at other people's books shelves - I know its not quite polite but I can't seem to stop myself. Now - when caught I can distract them with a detailed history of TB vs BT orientation.

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: MartinB (
Date: March 09, 2010 04:05PM

All of my English books are TB. My mother's German ones are BT.

Not sure about Afrikaans, but I will check.

'We're all mad here. I'm mad, you're mad." [said the Cat.]
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "Or you wouldn't have come here."
- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: CannibalRabbit (
Date: March 10, 2010 10:35AM

So far I have noticed one UB40 cd single that goes the "wrong" way.

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: bunyip (
Date: March 14, 2010 12:29AM

I just looked at my books and the titles are at random angles.

This is because I am in the process of moving the bloody things and some of the boxes have broken so all the SF/fantasy/[Pratchett-Fforde-Holt-Rankin, etc. stuff] is just waiting for a feather to fall so that it may cascade down on some unsuspecting individual.

When (if) I ever get it organised I will consider this thread.

I do seem to remember having this problem before somewhere when it came to arranging the titles so people could read them.

Is it easier to tilt the head to the right or the left to read, or is this affected by whichever side of the road on which you (should) drive in your nation?

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: SkidMarks (
Date: March 14, 2010 12:45AM

I try not to read book titles while driving, but suspect that with her differing priorities this could explain why mrs. SkidMarks has never learnt to drive.

You could always follow my good lady wife's shop advice and just f ile bookes upside down to keep titles consistent!

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: geg (
Date: March 18, 2010 01:45PM

I've learnt so much - just in time for e-readers to make this knowledge redundant.

Why has the spell-check underlined "learnt"?

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: SkidMarks (
Date: March 18, 2010 03:06PM

Perish the thought that e-readers will replace dead-tree books. These new-fangled devices are good for carrying a lot of books, but so far I have not had a problem reading a real book in bright sunlight, nor had CommanderROR's incompatibility problems. I must admit, though, that mrs. SkidMarks has a book in Russian which is incompatible as neither of us speak or read the language.

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: zendao42 (
Date: March 21, 2010 01:06AM

On my book shelves, I see:
Books, Pez, odd bits of paper, bags, the board game Auburnopoly, brochures from my honeymoon...

Oh, you wanted to know about book titles, sorry...

They all seem to be going top2bottom & I think all my books are in English-
well, except for a CAT IN THE HAT in Latin & LITTLE WOMEN in Japanese, but I can't find those-
not sure if this counts but my college textbooks for French, Spanish & Italian are also in the same direction...

Signature or shameless self-promotion?
You decide:



Re: Book spine census
Posted by: instantkarmie (
Date: April 13, 2010 06:35AM

All of my English language books are TB, but a few of Asian origin Are BT (though still written in English)

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: Violetmoon (
Date: April 17, 2010 02:50AM

Finally remembered to look!

I have an extremely odd collection of books. Unfortunately I have more books than bookshelf space, so I'm not sure, but I think all of my books have titles running top to bottom. Except. I have *several* that are horizontal. Meaning if the book is set on the shelf like normal, with the bottom edge on the shelf, the title words are left to right, stacked one word above the next. All of those are hardback except one very thick paperback.

These are mostly reference books, but there are also a few fiction books. Also, one is a 1939 school year book. One was used as a textbook.

Some of my magazines (sewing/craft related, with patterns) have title and brief index on the spine. Those all run TB.

Oh wait! An old (well used!) copy of The Cat in the Hat is BT. He *would* have to be different, wouldn't he...

Book spine census
Posted by: zendao42 (
Date: April 18, 2010 02:09AM

Went to a library sale this week & found quite a few books in German-
they went BT, with the possible exception of a Von Dannekin (sp? accent marks?)-
you know, the guy that wrote all about alien visitation?

Anyway, I was too startled by the fact that the book existed in German to check the spine direction...

Re: Book spine census
Posted by: SkidMarks (
Date: April 18, 2010 11:27AM

The well-known scientific satirist has a theme park at Interlaken in Switzerland.

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