The Book is a Box: Divergent Evolution in The East and The West

Updated: May 15, 2019

Papers are fragile, numerous, and embody the entropic principle of becoming disorganised. Any method of keeping paper protected and ordered is useful. Keeping them in something like a box is an effective first step. This approach also entails organisation: The papers are unified by topic or may belong in a continuous series.

This post is about the book, and one of it's basal design features, which is that books are a way of 'boxing-up' their contents. Thinking of books as boxes may not always make sense, but it gets to think about their function as a piece of design. Interestingly, books developed different forms in two cultural centres, which are today arguably matched in the sophistication of their design.

Development of Books

One method of keeping papers organised is to stack them in a safe location, like an alcove. Better yet is a box which is protective and can be moved about. Tying stacks of papers together so they are kept tight and in the correct order is another improvement. This is the early stage at which book design in the west and the east delineated.

In the east, namely Japan, the method of tying stacks of paper was perfected in the form of stab-binding, where the book's form is very remniscent of a solid box at the spine. This method restrains movement near the stitching, instead relying on the curve of paper for the book to open. The approach to paper in the east has been light and subtle, with bookbinding embodying a similar aura. There is a suite of cover and box designs in Japanese bookbinding that I am not well-equipped to comment on, but the emphasis on lightness and modular detail seems to be a thread in both the making process and the end objects.

In the west, development of bookbinding in the medieval period gave rise to a different but equal approach. Groups of paper were folded and the stitching took place at the folds. The stitching attached the pages to strong chords or leather strips, which were in turn attached to covers, often made of wood. The western approach often built a fairly heavy box around the book, with distinct hinge points where the cover meets the pages. Some books use the cover-hinging and also the motion at the spin - where the folded sections can pivot around the stitching - to let the book open. Other books use the cover-hinging and keep the spine very rigid, using the curve of paper to open.

Chord bound page-block with boxboard covers. This book is designed to open flat, so the spine itself is able to curve sharply.

Both Eastern and Western methods of bookbinding acknowledge the box-like nature of books. It is interesting that they realised this quite differently, and with different approaches to making. The making methods were probably part of the reason why two forms arose. The methods applied at each stage of development were likely instrumental in what the bookbinders tried out next. Progress in bookbinding has developed incrementally, as in biological evolution. Just like in biological evolution, a diversity of 'life-strategies' can emerge. This may be why two divergent approaches to books - not to mention design as whole - developed in the West and East. The feedback between design and making techniques should not be underestimated here, as that is a deep and long-formed interaction. In The West, it is not only the books which are heavier, but much of the equipment is also more heavily engineered. In The East, the weight of good metal and wood is harnessed well, but set in counterpoint to lightness.

Modern Manifestations

Interestingly, bookbinding in the west deteriorated when it became lighter, but this was related to cheaper materials and techniques. Douglass Cockerell commented that very old books with sturdy wooden boards and thick leather and silver claps were known to last for hundreds of years and still be in better condition than recently-made bindings. There is indeed a sculpturesque presence to the weighty traditional bindings he references. It is no wonder that craftspeople gravitate to perfecting that somewhat heavy-handed formula of full leather binding. If lightness is adopted instead, perhaps it is best to adopt the alternate optimums established in Eastern bindings, rather than merely degrading the other optimum.

All that said, if we think of the book as a kind of structural vessel for it's content, then we can imagine this vessel being shaped and crafted in many different ways. The vessel maybe crafted for the purpose: small and light vessels for small things which are carried; large and heavy vessels for large things which have permanent homes. This philosophy harmonises with the humble paper back, a design which is particular flawed yet endlessly beautiful by virtue of it's cultural role as a universal receptacle of stories.


When it comes to notebooks there is a unanimous agreement that the best method is folded pages, hinging sharply around good stitching at the spine. The hinging spine is essential for letting the pages lie flat, which they must do for writing. The flexible spine is more essential than hard covers, but I am so enamoured with the utility of the box-like hinging covers that I incorporate them ubiquitously. Admittedly, my recent makes of leather long-stitch journals and passport holders have helped me rediscover a particular love of soft-cover bindings. What does remain constant is the flexibility of the hinging spine.

Bad Notebooks and How They Happen

The requirements for notebooks are a little higher than books. Particularly, perfect-binding (the type used in paperbacks) relies only on glue, and is not acceptable for notebooks. Problems arise when glue replaces the articulation of stitching, and when things like headbands and decoration are added carelessly. Much of this issue is to do with poor-quality mass production and superficial design decisions. Modern industry has produced spectacular things (think about the precision embodied in a simple screw bolt), but unfortunately, we have let it go to a place also burdened with bad objects.

Imitation of higher quality books is a mistake, as it would be better to adopt a unique style rather than marring another. It is impossible to fake quality weighty materials with cheap and light ones. It is the notebooks which are cheap, but not incredibly so, that I find distressing. When buying, it is often best to either get a quality object, or just not worry too much and get something commodity. The red and black notebooks at newsagents are an example - they are so bad that they are more acceptable, just by the lack of pretense.

Conclusion This narrative is about one of those very simple pieces of design which is deeply ingrained in our society. The book has completeness that is rare: it is so simple and obvious, yet it solves many different problems at once, and has done so for over a thousand years in it's current forms. I want to emphasise that this kind of design is very old, and that it does not have branding or patented technologies. It does not even pretend to have a finite number of optimums or to know who invented them. Although bookbinders simply solve a problem, they have done it slowly, with long-term thinking and process-orientated work, and with genuine enjoyment of the object. The result is many generations of collaboration. I believe we should maintain that way of working today, not just in making, but in industry, academia, and creative fields. We should embrace it even more so when times are tough, because it is a good way to solve problems at a deep level.

Kindest, Chris

Pilgrim Notebooks

All Content © Christopher Jolly (Pilgrim Notebooks).


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