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Why do Books Have this Shape (No, Not Just Because)

Why do Books Have this Shape (No, Not Just Because)
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Palina Dolia

Let's be honest: we're crazy about books. But have you ever wondered why they look like this? Both pocket books with the size of a maple leaf and huge dictionaries you can barely hold in your hands usually have the same rectangular shape and the same proportions. Why? Is it because of modern printing or is it something about us? Let's start our investigation!

Small and large books, in soft and hard covers, with and without illustrations – the enchanting magic of words works everywhere, so editions of all varieties and categories inevitably end up on our shelves. But once you try to organize them on these very shelves, it becomes a hell of a battle, because they are all different! Even within the same category, books may vary in size. However, something unites them all. And that is the shape. A book is usually rectangular with a width to height ratio of about 5 to 8. Do you think this is a characteristic of modern printing? Certainly not! Even the oldest books in the world are about the same proportions, except that they are a little narrower.

Why, then? Yes, triangular and round books seem like a silly idea and remain the prerogative of preschool literature. What about square ones? And why are books in the form of horizontal rectangles not so common? Too much has come together in the ideal form of a modern book, so let's look at its shape from three aspects – the anatomy of the reader, the history of publication, and, finally, the real magic of numbers.

So why are the books rectangular?

Because that's the way we are.

As we can suspect, the target audience of books is people. As we read, we, imperfect creatures, run our eyes over the text and can only handle a certain line length. If it’s too long, we forget where it all began. If it’s too short, and we are easily distracted, jumping from line to line. Robert Bringhurst, in his book "The Elements of Typographic Style", sets the optimal line size between 45 and 75 characters. Ideal variant is 66 characters per line. Have you ever wondered why large-format publications like newspapers break text into columns? That is the reason. To maintain optimal line lengths and your reading comfort.

The eyes are not the only important element in the reading process. Another element is the hands. The first bound books were read from special stands, but today we read on the subway, on the run, in comfortable armchairs, always holding books in our hands. Therefore, it makes sense that book proportions are adjusted to the size of our limbs. A narrow, long book won’t be comfortable to read on the way to work! So now that we have to hold onto the books while reading, they are much smaller – and shorter.

Because that's how the history of the book went

Of course, books did not always have a modern look. Before, there were scrolls: thin papyrus crumbled when you tried to fold it, so such a shape was the only option. At the same time, texts were written in columns on antique scrolls.

The history of the more or less modern form of the book begins with the invention of parchment. It was made from goat and sheep skins, which, for biological reasons, are very convenient to cut into rectangles. These same rectangles folded perfectly several times and were written on both sides – flesh to flesh, wool to wool (sounds unpleasant, but such is the harsh reality of typography). The sheets, however, differed in size. This depended on the number of folds of the sheet itself, as well as on the size of the vat where the skin was soaked, the frame where it was dried, and on many other factors. In Bologna, by 1389, a special stone was introduced with standard page sizes carved in. Was it helpful? Why it did.

Most books published before 1500 were “in folio” format, or half a sheet of printing paper. In a modern way, it is A3 – not a very compact read. Aldus Manutius, Italian book printer changed everything. We should thank him for the semicolon, italics and, finally, small books. Manutius revolutionized the printing industry and began publishing books “in octavo” format – the modern A5. This is how, starting with the Italian portable "reference books", books have come closer to the modern format, not only in their proportions, but also in size.

Because of the math.

Yes, you heard it right. There is a serious mathematical explanation for why books of this particular format cannot get better.

In short: there are proportions that are mathematically calculated to be perfect for a page in a book and yet aesthetically pleasing. In his book "Divina Proporción Tipográfica", Raul Rosarivo gives measurements of many books of the Renaissance and comes to the conclusion: they all follow a certain canon. In those times, there was a "golden canon" for everything, and book pages were no exception. However, the proportion 2 to 3 was considered ideal. Thanks to this proportion, the pages were divided into ninths, and wide margins finally appeared at the bottom – you could hold the book from below without overlapping the text with your fingers.

The math doesn't end there! Although the "golden number of Rosarivo" was 1.5, the "golden ratio" was still around 1.618. It is still used in book design today, from the Bible to bestsellers. And according to the golden ratio, the book is still a rectangle, roughly 5:8. Perfect.

Science is moving forward, every year more and more incredible inventions enter our lives, but some things are already perfect and do not require improvement. For example, the shape of books. As long as we have eyes, hands, history and the ability to count, they will remain predominantly rectangular – and that's great!

By the way, e-books are also rectangular.

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The Art of Sorting: How to Organize your Bookshelves and Stay Sane

8 Apr 2021

Take a look at your bookshelf. Closer. What does it remind you of? An uneven row of books of all sizes and colours? Perfectly even row, where everything is arranged exactly in alphabetical order? Chaotically volumes thrown on each other mixed with postcards and magazine inserts? Whatever is in your bookcase, you've probably thought about sorting it at least once. Home libraries always look flawless in photographs and in movies – if only it were like this at home! It's time to dust off the spines and learn about ways to tidy up your bookshelves. And to figure out how the National Library is doing it.

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