Top 5 Ways to Ruin Your Books

Often people visiting our gallery are terrified of touching the books, thinking that any human fingers trespassing the pages will diminish the value (or that they may spontaneously drop them). In fact, books are quite sturdy (though you should not throw them on the floor). For the most part, normal handling won’t hurt them. Want to know what really hurts books? Here’s a Top 5 list:


5. Lending them.

Any bibliophile who has lent out a book knows why this is a problem. First of all, you’ll be lucky to receive the book back at all. But more importantly, your average friend does not know how to handle a book. If it is miraculously returned, you can expect the spine to be bent, the dust jacket to be torn, etc. etc. And no, I’m not advocating you be an insufferable book lender who declares the laws of book handling before graciously allowing a friend to touch a book (unless it’s a valuable rare book—then go ahead and be insufferable). Take the famous advice of book collectors: one needs three copies of a book. One to collect, one to read, and one to lend.


4. Pulling the book down by the head of the spine.

The part of the book where the front and back cover meet, the part that shows when a book is on a shelf, is called the spine. The top of the spine is called the head. Such a wonderful little tab, there to help you pull down the book. Do not be lulled by its charms! The head is extremely weak, and will flake or break off if consistently used to pull the book down. Now the book needs repair, which costs money and hurts the value of the book, or does not receive repair and instead has an obvious, completely avoidable condition defect. Instead, pull the book down either from the back, keeping your finger against the paper of the text block, or else grab the book from around its center, with your fingers on either side. Safety first.

The head of the spine on the dust jacket has flaked off from being pulled on. Bad. (I bought this book used!)
The right way to pull a book down.

3. Exposing them to constant sunlight.

Just as exposure to sunlight changes the tone of one’s skin, it also changes the color of a book. The damage from UV rays is one of the most common condition problems I’ve encountered among otherwise beautifully preserved rare books. This is easy to avoid: simply do not place your books on a shelf that directly faces sunlight. In some cases, this basic principle will preserve a book’s value by tens of thousands of dollars. I’m thinking of the notorious red band on the spine of the dust jacket of The Sound and the Fury, which is almost always found faded because of sunlight. If you have a pristine copy without fading, you’re looking at the difference between a $30,000 book and an $80,000 book.

Note the red on the spine has faded almost to white, simply from exposure to sunlight.


2. Allowing the front cover to flop over to the left when opening and reading the book.

There are two major weaknesses of a book’s design: the head of the spine, covered in point (4); and the joints where the spine meets the covers. In opening the book, the cover pivots at an angle controlled by the joint. Some joints are very secure and these books can be difficult to open; others are less so. But that joint is sensitive! Try to avoid ever opening a book more than 90 degrees (and even less for some books). At all costs, avoid stressing the joint by lazily knocking the cover off to the left, bent at more than a 180 degree angle and supported by the table underneath. (Avoid energetically knocking the cover to the left, as well.) These joints can loosen from such wear, which may require strengthening, or a rebacking, or an entire rebind. All of which hurt the value of your book.

Gah, I can hardly bear to look at this photo.


1. Throwing away the dust jacket.

Collectors can be an eccentric and entertaining lot. They can also be picky. And the value of a book is often greatly determined by its desirability for collectors. In modern books (say, about 1920 and after—ish) collectors want to see a dust jacket. The ideal first edition looks just as it did when it was first sold—with all the pieces intact. This can affect the value in extreme terms. For instance, the most famous of all dust jackets is the one for the first edition The Great Gatsby. We sell first editions for $4000-$7000. That’s without the incredibly scarce dust jacket. A first edition in a beautiful jacket can go as high as $300,000! I know, the dust jacket gets in the way when you read. And it’s the first line of defense in protecting the book from wear. But keep that piece of paper safe, since it will drastically change the value of your book.

A first edition of The Great Gatsby in the incredibly rare original dust jacket.


These are some beginning steps in storing and handling rare books. I’ll get into more in later posts, but send me your comments so far. Which of these are you guilty of? Which did you not know about, or seemed counter intuitive?


22 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    Thanks for another great post. I make sure that my library shades are drawn to keep the direct sunlight out.

  2. Nick-W says:

    I love recommending books to my friends/family, but you’re right… as soon as you recommend a book, they want to borrow your copy… and then never give it back. I always end up looking like an antagonistic debt collector when I ask them “hey, are you finished with that book yet?”

    Ahhhh it drives me nuts!!

  3. Justin says:

    Libraries are the worst. They do things like paste card holders inside the cover and tape the dust jacket to the book. My first edition of Raise High the Roofbeam… was ruined by a careless librarian. The coup de grace, they stamped discarded on the inside cover.

    1. On top of that, many copies of great first edition books were sold to libraries, so it can be very difficult to find those books in great condition. Casino Royale, the first Harry Potter…

  4. R Towns Blethrow says:

    These are important truths about handling any volume. Thank you for the
    reminder. Here is an article that may be worthy of a good read:

    A highlight from the article As an indignant letter to the editor in an issue of Fine Books & Collections magazine illustrated, there exists a pervasive myth that rare and valuable antiquarian books should, indeed must be handled with white cotton gloves. In fact, handling books with gloves is apt to do more harm than good. Gloves are just as likely to be dirty as fingers, but gloves do not allow nearly as much dexterity as uncovered hands.

    I am quite guilty of “handling the spine” inappropriately!

    Throwing away the dust jack would quite simply be outright sacrilege so of this
    sin I am not guilty.

    I recommend :

    EMCO® Durafold™ Book Jacket Covers

    Sheets: adjust to fit any book jacket; include a dispenser box

    Available in boxes of 25 and 50 or bulk packs of 500
    Assortment pack of 100 includes: 25–9″, 50–10″, 25–12″
    Archival safe
    No paper backing

    Rolls: cut only what you need; include a convenient dispenser box

    Available in 200′ and 300′ lengths
    Crystal-clear gloss film
    No paper backing

    I must admit one sin of not always using an appropriate book mark!
    So, I have started making my own using the cancelled postage stamps
    of interesting design and laminating a strip of 4 to eight inch length and
    about 1.5 to 2 inch width. Some of the stamps are quite nice like the bonsai
    or patriot/freedom/liberty series. It’s fun to match the stamp with the theme
    of a particular book. Of course, silk ribbon markers are always nice too!! 😉

    1. You’ve just given away one of my upcoming posts! It was going to be all about the white gloves issue. Perhaps I’ll still do it later to summarize the article you reference, which is the authoritative article right now.

  5. Christopher Robertson says:

    Great post, I was curious if you know if it is possible to reverse damage from UV rays to a dust jacket? I have a copy of “The Little Prince” with a jacket that has turned brown, I assume from exposure to sunlight. Also do mylar covers offer any protection from sunlight? Thank you!

    1. Good questions. The only way to really reverse damage to a jacket is to restore it, which hurts the value and often hurts it more than the damage itself, so you have to think long and hard about your particular book’s condition before you try to fix it.

      As for mylar covers, they do NOT protect from sunlight. They are archival so there are no acids in them that will harm the book, but they do nothing about UV rays.

  6. Since I started following your blog I had recalled buying a couple of boxes of books at a garage sale about 17 years ago and stored them at my other house. I went there and checked the boxes in the attic and unfortunately didn’t find anything that appeared to have value. The only very old stuff were a couple of dictionaries and bibles with some cool art work. I was so hoping to find a treasure to brag or inquire about…guess I will keep my day job. 🙂 LOL

    1. Rare books are called “rare” for a reason. But if you keep an eye out for first editions (particularly first printings, for 20th century books), you may get lucky sometime.

  7. Brandon says:

    Had to laugh at the “borrowing” of books. Not only are they rarely returned, a decent percentage of people never end up reading them! Books are sometimes like health foods — people know they’re good for them so they buy them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean ever get to making use of them.

    1. I myself am terrible at returning books I’ve borrowed…I admit.

  8. cardinalrich says:

    i grew up in a library (not an exaggeration) and as a son of a librarian I have hard time lending books because no one will care for them like I do. More than once rather than lend someone a book I will buy them their own copy. That being said I live in Miami and sunlight is a huge problem for me. I’d have to make major readjustments to my home to allow the proper lighting. Very frustrating.

    1. I am also a fan of giving someone a nice paperback copy over lending them my own. I’m happy about sharing the book, so paying for it doesn’t bother me; the publisher/author/bookseller all make money; and the friend has his own copy he can destroy if he so pleases.

  9. Paula says:

    These tips were so helpful! I already knew #3 from my own experience (I live in Brazil, so sun is everywhere all year round) but I am totally guilty of #2 (have got to stop doing that!).

    I liked the “three copies” rule. I usually don’t care about lending books, but I actually never lent older, vintage books. I guess there really is no sense in lending a “collectible”. Also, I buy used, old books and actually read them, which I notice damages the book a little. From now on I’ll buy a new copy just to read and leave the used one intact. Great post! xx

    1. Thanks, Paula! You can still read older copies, but you have to be much more conscientious. In particular, don’t open them any wider than you have to in order to see the text. Reading an old copy can add to the experience in some ways–the feel of the paper and the binding, the choice of font…

  10. claire says:

    I’ve berated myself not a few times for pulling a book off the shelf at the head of the spine! I remind myself not to repeat but then forget.

    I’m obsessive about lending books to others, too. I would rather buy them their own copies than lend them my own, which is silly, I know, for someone who mostly has “newer” books, not collectibles. A few friends who know my quirks (and have heard my warnings ha ha) do tend to be extra careful when borrowing my books, though, and that makes me grateful for their respect.

    One thing I have a problem with, the sunlight. We have a tiny, tiny house, and the only room for a wall of shelves is in our living room which is adjacent to a whole wall of window. If I wanted to protect the books from sunlight I would have to keep the books in boxes, which I would rather not. The only other option I can think of is to cover all books with kraft paper, but without taping or glueing them, just folding them over. Do you think that’s wise?

    I normally do not like dust jackets and have thrown out a few over the years, which I regret. I’ve kept the really pretty ones, though.

    Thanks for this post, Rebecca, and looking forward to more.

    1. You may want to consider getting a UV window film for that wall of window you have, which would do the trick without sacrificing aesthetics. Something like this:

  11. Sheila Finch says:

    If a dustjacket has been laminated will that ruin the value of the book?

    1. Yes, it will hurt the value of the jacket. You should put it in mylar instead.

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