See Page XX: The Books Themselves

By Mike Drew9_booksize

In a game as focused on books as The Bookhounds of London, it is worth taking some time to consider what makes up a book and how to describe them effectively.

Book Sizes

Start with a large sheet of paper and fold it once vertically. You now have two leaves and four pages, this is called a folio. Do it again horizontally to get four leaves and eight pages, this is called a quarto (4vo). These collections of pages, called quires, are bound together to make a book and the number of leaves you finally end up with will determine the size of the book. If your quire consists of eight leaves you have an octavo (8vo.), which is about the size of a modern paperback. You can also go smaller. Originally, when books tended towards a more rarefied ownership these gathered quires would be sold straight to the buyer who was then expected to have the book bound themselves. If they had the money they would probably have it finely bound in morocco or calf, possibly in their own personal style. Poorer buyers, such as scholars, might use vellum because it was cheaper, writing the details on the spine. If your copy of Speculum Alchemiae is bound in a white smooth material with the title written on ink on the spine, it may well have been a student’s copy.


Bindings can be full (the entire cover is leather), half (the spine and the corners are leather) or quarter (just the spine). They may also be decorated with gilt (gold). Start from the boards (covers). Their edges may be ruled in gilt, or there may be a decorative or straight-line border. These might be in gilt or another colour or in blind if there is no colour added and the pattern is straight onto the boards. There may be a design stamped onto the boards – the heraldic device of the owner, or a symbol connected to the contents (such as the Yellow Sign).

The spine will usually be divided into compartments by the raised bands where the tapes holding together the pages are beneath the binding. The spine may be lettered in gilt either direct if straight onto the leather, or it may be done on contrasting leather lettering pieces usually in the second and third, or second and fourth compartments. The other compartments will often have a decorative design in gilt. The compartments may be bordered in gilt, and the raised bands may have lines ruled onto them, again in gilt.

The edges of the pages may be decorated. If they have been detached from each other they have been opened. Usually a binder will open them and then trim the edges (if they are not trimmed they are ‘uncut’). The edges may be gilt. This means the top of each page is anointed with gold so that it forms a flat surface when the book is closed so that dust cannot get between the pages. They may do all the edges for effect. The edges might instead be marbled – patterns of inks are made in water and the pages are dipped in to create a wavy, multi-coloured pattern. This is more common with calf bindings. If the edges are marbled they will often be reflected in marbled endpapers (the very first few pages used to partly bind the pages to the boards). Marbled endpapers may still be present if the edges are gilt.

This is a very basic look at bindings. To get further examples it is worth looking at booksellers’ catalogues or descriptions of books in library catalogues. It is worth thinking about who would have had a book made – aristocrat, library, student, school prize? Each will be different and the differences may offer clues to the story of the book or its owners. Sometimes binders will sign their work, either with a paper ticket or a stamp and this can help with the provenance of a text.

Covers and Jackets

Covers as they appear now were effectively unknown before about the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1820s England, supposedly during a leather shortage, the sheets were protected with boards joined over the spine with cloth. These protective boards would mostly be removed when the book was bound however, so it is rare to find books with their original boards from this period. William Pickering is held to be the first publisher to put a binding as we would know it on books. He made cheap copies of books available bound in boards covered in cloth instead of leather. This made books cheaper and met the growing demand. Publishers began decorating the boards of books as more people chose to leave the boards rather than have them bound. Pictorial cloth might depict scenes from the story, there might be designs stamped in gilt or other colours on the boards, the spine might be decorated in gilt and there might be other touches more common to a leather-bound book.

8_bookAs these bindings became more common the dust-jacket was introduced to protect the cloth. The oldest examples are from the middle of the nineteenth century but they are very rare at this old as originally they were meant to be removed and this often took place in the shop. Originally dust-jackets were very plain as they were simply protective,however in the twentieth century publishers realised it was cheaper to print on the dust-jacket so the quality of the binding went down and the decoration on the jacket went up.

Thus a copy of the 1907 translation of the Ponape Scripture issued by Miskatonic University Press would be likely to be bound in cloth with the spine and upper board lettered in gilt and in a cheap, plain dust-jacket possibly describing something of the contents of the work, unless they decided to make a special edition of the work. An 1839 Unaussprechlichen Kulten will likely be bound according to its owners’ wealth and taste, probably in leather.

The books are the central focus of the game and it is worth not only deciding which books may be found but also how they look and what clues they might reveal. Old leather, poorly looked after, dries and cracks and rubs off on your fingers and jacket. The extremities of the book might be rubbed and bumped revealing the board beneath. Sometimes foxing (brown dots appearing from the acidic nature of the paper) can get so bad a page will fall apart as you touch it. If a page is a more uniform brown colour it is described as browning. Engravings may be pulled out to be framed or used in a ritual, but you can only really spot that if you properly collate the whole book. Calf feels smooth to the touch, morocco rough and mottled. Player’s might be led to investigate the coat of arms on the upper board or the binders who signed the book. If the paper is watermarked with a date (English paper tends to be between the late 1700s and the middle 1800s, French paper from a little earlier) and one page is after the date on the title-page and no other one is, why is that? Is the inscription on the front page significant? Are there marginal notes? Any detail might help move an adventure onward and rare and old books may be full of many of these. If all you have is photographs and descriptions to find a particular copy of a book any little hint is vital.

Books In-Game

So rather than saying ‘You find a copy of the Eltdown Shards’ describe finding ‘a book half bound in green morocco the colour and texture of a lizard’s skin, the compartments of the spine stamped in gilt with a five-pointed star design and the upper board with a huge coat of arms. The spine declares this is the Eltdown Shards and a check of the title-page shows it is an 1892 translation. There is a bookseller’s ticket on the front paste down. The pages are browning with age and the dry leather is cracked and stains your fingers as you open it; a quick flick through reveals tiny notes in pencil in a crabbed hand.’ Any of these details might help the players. Have a full description of the book for when they do a proper collation and see if they think to check that all the plates are original…

All the elements that make up a book and all the signs of its use are clues to the history surrounding the book and any of the clues might lead to an unknown library or a trip in a weighted sack off the side of East India docks.


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.

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