Reading spines up or down?

Among the minor cultural differences that separate countries is the question of the orientation of the text on the spine of books that identify their title and author when conveniently packed on book shelves: going up

Les Misérables   Der Zauberberg

proudly as French and German books, or going down

The Big Sleep  Il Principe

as English or American or Italian books? When books are ordered by topic or author, this leads to rather uncomfortable switches of orientation of the head as one scans bookshelves for the right oeuvre to read during a lazy afternoon.

Actually, these are more or less contemporary examples, and it seems that these conventions change with time. For instance, I have an old English paperback from 1951 where the title goes up instead of down:

The Greeks
The Greeks

Another from 1962 goes down. When did the change happen? And why? And how do other languages stack up? Is it rather a country-based preference? Are the titles of Italian-language books printed in Switzerland going up (like the French and German ones do), or down? And does this affect the direction in which shivers run along your spine when reading a scary story of murdered baronets in abandoned ruins?

(There’s of course the solution, admittedly snobbish, of writing the title and author’s name horizontally

Le comte de Monte Cristo
Le comte de Monte Cristo

as the Pléiade does, for instance).

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

2 thoughts on “Reading spines up or down?”

  1. Great observation!!

    I immediately had a look in my private library. Almost all the spines of my books read downwards.

    P.s. I often enjoy reading your blog. However, I don’t know enough about math to join the discussions:-)

  2. Just came across this old post. It occurs to me that the traditional French/German convention makes more sense, from at least one point of view: if browsing through a bookshelf from left to right (which is likely to be consistent with whatever organizational scheme is being used for books in these left-to-right languages), then titles going up means that if you tilt your head to the left, you can read the titles as you would read down a page. The traditional English (etc.) convention requires you to read as if you were going top to bottom, or else to browse in the opposite order.

    Nevertheless, being more accustomed to the English style, I tend to find that one more comfortable.

    I also notice that the bookshelves in my office offer no clear evidence of the language/national differences in spines. The vast majority of the books are in English with the titles going down. The exceptions I found are:

    English with title going up: 2 (one published in the US, the other in Italy)

    French with title going up: 1

    French with title going down: 1

    German with title going up: 1

    German with title going down: 6

    But these are all math and physics books. I’m pretty sure that the bookshelves at home would tell a different story.

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