A Durable Binding Can Go a Long Way

This week’s view of The Hobbit will be from a binding perspective. As one might expect, there is not much specific information on the process by which this wonderful piece of art was bound, but we do know that it was bound by the Allen & Unwin trade binding company. We know that it was published in 1937, and can assume based on the number of copies (1,488) that it was done commercially.

By the 1930s, the commercial book binding process was very much the same as it is now. The machines of the 21st century may be faster, or more lucrative, but the general idea behind it all remains. But what is that idea?

Well, to put it quite simply, the pages must be folded and sown together into what we call signatures. Then, the signatures must be sown together. After preparing the pages, one has to cut stiff cardboard pieces called boards to the proper size to cover the pages. The boards must be glued to the book cloth, then the signatures attached to the cover. Do all of that with exact precision, and voila! You have a beautifully bound book! But if the process has been commercialized, how exactly does that work? Well I, and the creator of this video, are so glad that you asked!

The signatures and the actual cover, or case, would be made in completely separate steps of the process, and combining the two pieces would be the final step. Of course, Tolkien designed embellishments for the case of his book, which would have been embossed on the case before attaching the pages. It was actually quite unusual that Tolkien had a designed book cover because the art of it had more or less died down 20 years previous due to the cost efficiency of dust jackets, and Tolkien’s book had a dust jacket to go along with it as well as the cover’s design.

If there’s something I’ve learned over my time as an avid reader, it is to appreciate a good  binding when you’ve got one. This method of binding is much more durable than some of the more cost and time efficient used in this day and age. (I’ve got the broken Harry Potter book to prove it.) But regardless of what method you use, binding is an intricate and careful process that brings to life the imagination of any who make use of it.


Illustrations from the man, the myth, the legend – J.R.R. Tolkien

For most authors, their involvement in having a book published ends with the actual text of the book. They might approve the cover, or overall look of the finished product, but it is not typical to see much more than that. This is an area in which J.R.R Tolkien is particularly special (aside from his brilliant mind). When Tolkien submitted his book, The Hobbit, to his publisher he also submitted some of his very own illustrations to go along with the novel. The first edition, published in 1937, contained 10 black and white illustrations, along with 2 maps of regions within Middle Earth, some of which are truly spectacular pieces of art.

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 1.08.41 AM

hobbitmap_2345701bE4KAP49APGY6_4Hobbit1937_Book-IllustrationHobbit_Elvenkings_Gate_intextYes, Tolkien’s illustrations are beautiful, but what’s even more wonderful about them is that he actually designed about 110 of them. In 2012 a book titled The Art of the Hobbit was published, courtesy of the Tolkien estate, with so many of those never before seen drawings and paintings.

This is the part where any good Tolkien nerd is freaking out, saying, “I want to see! I want to see!”

Well, Tolkien nerds, you’re in luck. Here are a few of those mysterious images.

The White Dragon Pursues Raoverandum and the Moondog - J.R.R. Tolkien, courtesy of the Tlokien estate
The White Dragon Pursues Raoverandum and the Moondog – J.R.R. Tolkien, courtesy of the Tlokien estate

artofthehobbit3 Smaug-Flies-from-The-Art--003 Smaug-Flies-from-The-Art--004 The-Lonely-Mountain-from--001

By now, you may be just as amazed by his talent and attention to detail as I was, but I haven’t even discussed the best part yet. Not only did Tolkien provide his very own illustrations, but he also designed the book cover AND dust jacket. For these two designs, I really just have to let the pictures do all of the talking.

I love the simple beauty of this design.


Get with the TIMES

This week’s topic is typography. Now, if you’re anything like I was, you have no idea what that word even means. Basically, typography is the type. It is the very real and physical aspect of the text of a book. We sometimes refer to it in layman’s terms as the font. So, I sat down to talk about the typography of The Hobbit and realized that I had no idea what the type it was printed in could be. So, I googled pictures of the text. (Google was necessary because I do not actually own a first edition copy of The Hobbit because I am poor and it is expensive.)

Cool illustration, btw. We'll get to that next week.
Cool illustration, btw. We’ll get to that next week.

As soon as I saw this picture, it struck me how familiar the type looked in it. Probably because it looks remarkably like a certain font that I have had to type many papers in. To my naked, untrained eye, this appears to be Times New Roman. I absolutely could be wrong, but from this point on let’s just assume that I’m not. Times New Roman is one of those things that was designed for a very specific purpose, then began reaching it’s scope further and further and eventually became much larger than it was ever intended. Its original purpose was a type for newspaper, which is why its design is so narrow (you can fit more text per line). Designed in 1929 by typographer Stanley Morrison, the Times New Roman font is named for the Times newspaper in London. The Times hired Morrison to design the type to use in their newspapers.

Because of it’s ever increasing popularity and proximity to the year of publication of The Hobbit, it would make sense for Times New Roman to be the font used to print this book. I might be completely wrong, I’m certainly no expert, but from what I can see this is my best guess.

Smash them! Beat them! Bite them! Gnash them!

As we all know by now, this blog is primarily devoted to the making and appreciation of the first edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. And what is something we all know that is needed in order to make a book? Paper. Books are supposed to be made out of paper, I don’t care what the Information Age has to say about it. There is a lot of beauty in the history of paper making; partly because it has been around for an obscene amount of time, and partly because the process can render some really beautiful results.

Chinese man practicing the traditional art of paper making.
Chinese man practicing the traditional art of paper making.

It has been widely recognized that paper making originated in China in the year 105 A.D. (Like I said, paper has been around for a very, very long time.) While the original process may have evolved over the hundreds of years, it has more or less been preserved in practice. The general process was, then and now, to beat rags or some kind of plant fiber into a pulp, then use a mould to form the sheet of paper, lay it out on something like felt, press it with heavy weights to expel excess water, and hang it up to dry. There were, of course, some technological advances that made the process easier (especially in creating pulp), as well as some improvements in specific materials used, but the process of hand making paper has remained the same since its start.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century/early 19th century, well after the worldwide spread of the paper making process, that mass production was made possible. The demand for paper was higher than what could be produced simply by hand, so, through the efforts of both Nicholas Louis Robert and the Fourdrinier brothers, a machine was created that could make paper in the form of one large, continuous sheet. This method was much more efficient, as you could imagine. It was an incredible invention that has since been helping to meet the high demands for paper and contributed to the mass production of books, newspapers, magazines, and so many other things. Just like the art of hand making paper, the process/machines have evolved over the years, but the theory behind it all has remained the same.

Since The Hobbit was printed in 1937, a time when mass production of both paper and books were well established, we can rightly assume that this is how the paper for those first 1500 books (and all those after them) was made. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell the exact paper mill that supplied the materials to the printer, but at least we can have a good idea of how it was made. And man am I glad that it was!


The art of book printing has lost some of its beauty over the decades; not necessarily in it’s process, but more so in how it is widely appreciated. The amount of people who genuinely care about how the book they are reading was printed and made is disappointingly low. Still there are some out there who still care a tremendous amount about the printing process. It is because of those people that we still have books at all, and while I may not personally be the most knowledgable about such things, I sure am thankful for those who are.

As I have previously discussed in some of my other posts, I am studying the process of how the first edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit, was produced. The publishing company that Tolkien worked with was called George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. A company that was formed in the late 1800’s by the Allen family, and then merged with Unwin in 1914. They were based in London, and were best known for their work with Tolkien. In order to print the pages of the novel, they collaborated with Unwin Brothers, Ltd.

At the time in which The Hobbit was printed, the Unwin Brothers were located in Surrey, which is just a short way outside of London. When the company lost it’s original premise to a fire, they relocated here to an old paper mill building, which they morphed into the Saint Martha Printing Works.

The main entrance.
The main entrance.

The type of press that was most likely used here to print The Hobbit was a monotype machine, which used a mechanical method for setting type. Personally, I think it is difficult to truly conceptualize how these sorts of things work without actually seeing them in action. So, to help my readers out, I’m going to just leave you with a video that will hopefully provide all of the visual context you need to understand this method of print.

Someone’s Got Cash to Burn

Within the world of “book people” there are two major camps that someone will find themselves in, the reader or the collector. For nearly my entire life, I have found myself to be a reader. I know what readers look for in a beautiful piece of literature. Up until very recently, I hadn’t the slightest clue as to what a collector looked for when buying a book. I’ve been given the opportunity through one of my courses to begin getting my feet wet in the world of book collecting. While I’m not actually buying any books, I am learning a lot about what makes a book worth buying. One of the things that can really boost the value of a rare, collectible book is something called provenance. Provenance could be described as anything placed or written in a book after its publishing that leaves a trace of its former ownership. A sweet note written on the inside cover to the recipient of a gift? Provenance. A business card turned bookmark that was forgotten somewhere in the pages? Provenance. As we can see, provenance encompasses a wide variety of things.

Now, the main purpose of this blog is to study the making of the 1937 first impression of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again and what exactly makes it collectible. Sadly, I do not own my own first edition copy of this book because, well, I’m a poor college student. Since I don’t have a physical copy to hold in my own hands :(, I was almost at a loss when sitting down to write this post. Then it occurred to me that my blog isn’t about one specific copy of The Hobbit, it’s about every copy and why each one is such a coveted piece for many people’s collections. One thought led to another, and I began researching the price differences between copies that were signed by Tolkien himself and those that were not. Long story short, provenance in the form of an author’s signature is quite valuable. Just ask the guy in this video, he was practically giddy about it. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/archive/201102A52.html

On the linked page, a man brought a copy of the very book I am studying to be appraised. His book, and original dust jacket were both in pristine condition (color me impressed), and contains the beautiful signature of the one and only Mr. Tolkien himself.


The man who appraised the book appraised it at somewhere between $80,000 and $120,000. Yep, you read that correctly. $120,000. The owner of this copy could sell his book for a potential cost of $120,000.

Meanwhile, in 2008, a Copy with a message from Tolkien to a Ms. Griffiths sold in the UK for £60,000 (it was appraised at £20,000 – £30,000). For those of you who are like me and completely ignorant to how that translates into the US dollar, that would come to roughly $91,500 and an appraisal of $30,500 – $45,700.

On the other hand, copies with no provenance, or provenance of very little significance, generally sell somewhere in the $25,000-$35,000 range. To me, that is still quite a lot of money, but in comparison with $91,500 and $120,000, it seems somewhat minuscule.

As we can see, the mere presence of a person’s handwritten name can tremendously increase the value of a book, especially if they are directly related to that book’s personal story. Provenance is clearly a very powerful thing in the world of a book collector, and that is what we should take away from this post above all other things.

Books Are Sacred, Right?

The idea of a book being a sacred, or cherished object is the exact idea behind Helen Friel’s design for the Edgar Allan Poe’s The Imp of the Perverse. The mission of this book artist is to basically take me, and every other book enthusiast, down from within. According to Ms. Friel, Poe’s story forces people to think about motives and doing things when we know we shouldn’t. To further the point of his story, she designed a book that will completely and utterly destroy you go against everything you’ve ever known. This is the book:


It might be a little difficult to see from this picture, but in order to read the book, you have to literally destroy the book. I don’t know how many other people out there are as obsessive about keeping their books in mint condition as I am, but I’m legit psycho. I don’t dog-ear my pages, I don’t eat or drink when holding my books, I don’t prop them up on their spines, I hold with two hands – always. If you are one of the chosen upon whom I will bestow the honor of borrowing a book, I might as well make you enter into a contractual agreement that the book will return to me in the exact condition it left me in. Like I said, I am psycho. But there is comfort in the thought that there’s no possible way I’m the only crazy out there.

The fact that this book exists proves that I’m not the only crazy out there. Helen Friel knew how hard this would be. She knew. I’m personally struggling with deciding if she designed it to sit back and laugh as book lovers around the world cried at the mere idea of such vandalism, or if her purpose was to challenge people to think outside of their comfort boxes. Either way, this would be my only foreseeable reaction to attempting to read this book:MmnIjQa

I’m Going On An Adventure! … Of Sorts.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit has been a wildly popular story from the moment it was first published. In fact, the history of its publishing is a tale worthy of the words within its pages. As a huge Tolkien nerd, I jumped at the opportunity to not only dig into the history of this book’s story, but also to tell as much of it as I can.

There are many people who view books as literary works of art, myself being one of them, but a book can be so much more than that. A book can truly be a beautiful piece of visual artwork. I see this in the first edition of The Hobbit.wa201102A52_00 What is perhaps the most compelling about these illustrations is that Mr. Tolkien himself is the one who imagined and created them. In my humble opinion, there has yet to be a more beautiful publication of this book since the first two impressions of its first edition, but that’s a story for another time.

Tolkien’s novel was first published by George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. in the UK in late September of 1937. The first impression was allotted 1500 copies, which sold out completely by that December. (Like I said, wildly popular.) Pretty impressive.

Personally, The Hobbit is one of my very favorite stories, which is a huge part of the reason I chose it for the topic of this blog. I am also fascinated by J.R.R. Tolkien and his absolutely brilliant mind. I wish I could go back in time and meet him. One of the things I love most about him and the books he released was how involved he was in the whole process. To Tolkien, his books were about more than just his words within, they were also about the visual representation of what can be found inside. Tolkien understood what it meant for a book to be beautiful, and that is why I think his book is a perfect subject for this blog.