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Can this old book be saved?

The 1943 wartime edition of The Joy of Cooking, worn out.

It takes a lot to wear out a book, but I wore out my copy of The Joy of Cooking that I had bought back in the 1970s. Even when I bought it it wasn’t a young book. It’s the 1943 wartime edition, probably the most collectible of this cookbook’s many editions. I bought it in an antique shop. When it fell apart, I saved the pieces, tucked the book into a safe place in the back of a bookshelf, and ordered a new copy of the same 1943 edition on eBay.

Then some neighbors had a need for a recipe for homemade butterscotch. I suspected that The Joy of Cooking would have a recipe for making a butterscotch concoction from scratch, and it did. The neighbors were fascinated by the cookbook and its old-fashioned cook-from-scratch charm. I had been curious about bookbinding and book repair. But it was my wounded old cookbook that led me to watch a bunch of YouTube videos on bookbinding and then to order (from Amazon) what one needs to rebind books.

The material for rebinding a single book doesn’t cost that much — two dollars or less. But the materials can’t be ordered in one-book quantities, so the cost of getting started in bookbinding adds up. One needs boards for the covers, heavy paper for the spines and end sheets, fabric for the covers, “headband” material, the gauze-like material that reinforces the spines, lots of the right kind of glue, some brushes, a cutting board, a sharp cutting instrument, a “bone folder,” and, most expensive of all, a book press.

There are many good videos on rebinding book. I found this one particularly helpful. The job is mostly about measuring and cutting accurately and doing a good job of glueing without making a mess.

I’d now argue that every serious booklover, and in particular anyone interested in antique and collectible books, should rebind at least one book. That way one learns how books are put together. It’s an old guild craft that hasn’t changed that much since Gutenberg. The construction of most hardback books is actually pretty good, but there are some details that are found only in higher quality books, such as a well-made spine with an “Oxford hollow.” In rebinding a cookbook, I wanted to be sure that the rebound book would stay open and all the pages lie flat, as with the original binding. You’ll find information on what an “Oxford hollow” is in the video I linked to above, and the video explains why an Oxford hollow makes a more relaxed but just-as-strong binding. An Oxford hollow is easy to make, which makes me wonder why all books don’t have them.

The 1943 edition of The Joy of Cooking, I would say, is the most complete reference on standard American cooking ever published. People know what they are now, and the 1943 edition has gotten fairly expensive on eBay. You may remember a scene in “Julia” in which Julia Child meets Irma Rombauer in a publisher’s office. Rombauer is depicted as very dowdy, while Julia Child was sophisticated. The Joy of Cooking is a dowdy cookbook, but because it’s so complete, and because it was published in 1943, before Americans started subsisting on ultra-processed foods, you’ll find a scratch recipe for just about any American dish that you might want to make.

My next rebinding project will be a 1974 edition of a Webster’s dictionary that I wore out. As with the cookbook, I bought a new copy. But books that you’ve had for a long time and have worn out are like old friends. You’d almost think that there are tiny ghosts inside old books.

All done. That’s the book press on the left.


  1. Henry Sandigo wrote:

    Wow, impressive David. How did you create the label, etc? Why not blue like the original, etc?

    You are inspiring!


    Saturday, January 13, 2024 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Henry: I ordered only burgundy cloth to start, thinking that if I ordered light blue, I’d probably not have any other use for it, since burgundy is a good standard cover color. The label was printed on a laser printer, and the type was done in Adobe Illustrator. A glued-on paper label like that is not ideal, but it should be good enough to last a while. There’s a lot of glue in hardback books! It’s never the glue that gives out, though. It’s always the hinges and spine that turn a book into a casualty.

    Saturday, January 13, 2024 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  3. Amy Hitt wrote:

    David, can I send you our old Irma? it’s covered in duct tape, etc.

    Friday, January 19, 2024 at 9:20 pm | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Amy: Are you serious? 🙂

    Saturday, January 20, 2024 at 4:08 am | Permalink
  5. Amy Hitt wrote:

    Yes! Email me!

    Saturday, January 27, 2024 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

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