Spinal Discord

March 03, 2007 By: erik Category: House, Photos, Spain, Spain-v-USA, USA 3,341 views

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This is the first in a series of blog entries about little differences that I notice between the US and Spain. For each difference, I’ll decide which country does it better, and award points.

The first topic: Book Spines.
Here are a few pictures of our bookshelf, and some books I’ve removed from the shelf. Examine them carefully. It may help to click on them to see them better.



Notice that the Spanish titles are written in the opposite direction from the English titles. Now, which way is correct? A simple thought experiment will tell us.

Imagine that you are sitting at a table, and I hand you a book and tell you to place it, closed, on the table. You are naturally going to turn it around so that the front cover is facing up, and you will probably orient it so that you can read whatever is on the front cover, with the spine of the book facing to your left. Now imagine that there is a person sitting to your left, who wants to know what book you have, so she reads the spine. On an American (or British) book, she will have no trouble reading the spine. But on a Spanish book, the text on the spine will be upside down. USA wins!

I have explained this to a few Spaniards, and they all agree that the Spanish way is wrong, and they have no idea why the standard is how it is.

I would like to postulate that it might have something to do with the Arab influence left on Spanish culture from a thousand years ago. As I understand it, Arabic is read from right to left on the page. Does anyone know if they read books from back to front as well? It would make sense if you were reading from right to left to turn pages from left to right. When you are looking at the front of an Arabic book, is the spine on the right? I really don’t know. Anyone?

Did you notice that the book that my great-great-grandfather wrote in Old Norwegian also has the spinal text going the wrong way too? I wonder why that would be…

First round result: USA: 1, Spain: 0

  • Paul

    I think I will enjoy monitoring your country comparison. I only visited your lovely country once (so far), but I’d like you to consider subjects such as: bars, roads, child-rearing, newspapers, TV, radio, cost of living, meals, and entertainment,

  • Hmm.. I was thinking more along the lines of smaller quirkier things like book spines. Not a full-on culture “compare and contrast”. We’ll see what occurs to me…

  • ChristyK

    I actually arrived here via a search on wordpress. However, having an interest in Spain (would move there if not for family) and photography, I clicked around a bit. I also hoped to see a ‘daily living’ comparison of US and Spain but you take a unique approach.

    In comment to the book spines, put those books back on the book shelf. Now try to search for a specific book. Most people will read from left to right and in doing so, which spine is easier to read? The one facing to the left in the same way your focus is? I think the Spaniards got it right (or in this case left 🙂 ).

  • Thanks for your comment. I’m always glad to have new people take the time to sign up and leave a thought.

    Having just now gotten up from my chair and scanned the bookshelf, I think that your argument is a weak one. It all depends on which way you tilt your head. If, when you cast your eyes to the left side of the shelf, you also tilt your head slightly to the left, then you are correct. But it’s not that much more uncomfortable to look left and tilt your head to the right (the required movement to read English spines). But by the time your gaze gets to the right side of the shelf, your argument turns on itself and it would be more comfortable to read English spines.

    I like your on-shelf line of thinking, though. And you’ve made me think of something that had never occurred to me. For someone with a mixed bookshelf like me, it would make the most sense to put Spanish titles on the left side of the shelf and English titles on the right side. That layout would reduce neck strain the best. I wouldn’t want to hurt my spine. 🙂

  • The French and Italians are the same, so it may not necessarily be an Arabic thing.
    Although sometimes they do it one way, and sometimes the other way, so if I’m browsing the titles in a bookshop my head will flop back and forth as I try to read the titles.

    Related: do they do this (http://simonlitton.livejournal.com/14616.html) in Spain too?

  • Wow, Simon, that’s really odd. No, I’ve never seen that.

    Congratulations on having a Belgian flag on that comment, btw. You must be using a different ISP (at work?).

    So we’ve eliminated the Arabic hypothesis. It must just be a lack of thinking it through as I’ve done on this post.

  • That post was actually from home – it’s when I post from work that it thinks I’m in Luxembourg. Like this.

  • Could be worse. My mate, Hubbers, appears to come from Ohio when he’s at work in London. Silly corporate WANs.

  • this is really interesting. i think, however, that when a book is upright, the spanish way is much easier and more natural to read.

  • jairo

    With the spanish way is easier to read the tittle when the book is on the bookshelf.
    On a table wins the non spanish way.
    But I have to say that are spanish books printed in both ways.

  • When they are arranged on a bookshelf, neither is easier to read than the other.
    Even if the books were ‘upside down’, with their spines facing out, English is just as easy to read as Spanish, and just as easy than if it had been ‘right side up.’

    When laying flat on a table, with the front cover facing up, it is easier to read the English way, as you have shown.

    Good thing I don’t read books anymore, with or without spines; just blogs.


  • In Brazil, the standart is the american/british spine. It’s actually a rule, written in the Brazilian Technical Rules Association (Associaí§í£o Brasileira de Normas Técnicas, ABNT) whatsoever, but a few major publishing houses don’t give a dammn. That happens because some years ago, ABNT recommended precisely the other spine design (french spine) for brazilian books.

    As a matter of fact, in portuguese we name the “upside down” spine you noticed in the spanish books as “french spine” (lombada francesa), and the “right” spine as “british spine” (lombada inglesa). Both France and Britain have a rich contibution in book design’s history, which in each country took different ways; just compare the flamboyant, highly commercial britsh illustrated bookcovers, and the sober, yellow book covers form La Nouvelle Revue Franí§aise (Gallimard).

    See ya!

    • What a truly fascinating comment, Amanda! That’s exactly the kind of comment I was hoping for when I wrote this post two years ago.

      Thank you very much!

      P.S. Do the French do anything right? 🙂

  • Anonymous

    British books used to have upside down spines.  A used book store rejected a British book I wanted to trade because they thought the entire inside of the book was upside down and that it was a publishing error.  I had to inform them that the book was printed correctly, the spine was upside down in old British fashion.  It was printed by Marshall Pickering in 1987.