Important stuff: Bookspine lettering

Most Hungarian families own books, and bookshelves are an important part of the average living room.  Flat-hunting has given me the perfect opportunity to judge people by their bookshelves, a favourite (and quite deplorable) habit of mine. I almost bought a flat in Visegrád utca because the dude had Lingel bookcases (extreme case of want) crammed with books ranging from Esterhazy to Vonnegut and Herta Mueller. Of course we asked about the heating and average bills, but this somehow seemed more important.

While the lived-in flats that we visited this past month all had books on shelves, the size and content of these collections varied widely. Some like to mix unread, but nicely bound series editions of Jókai‘s epic novels with Stephen King and Robin Cook paperbacks. Some have ALL the hardcover Reader’s Digest albums about WWII battles. These two types also seem to be fond of silk flowers, with a minority subset who also prefer to display underarm deodorants and drinks bottles in front of their books.

Then there’s the people who have books from a bygone era, when reading was cheap (very very cheap) and it was kind of a thing to buy the latest classic from Európa and Magvető. Besides John Updike in translation, the black and yellow Albatros paperback series, and a bunch of Nemeskürty books on literature, there’s always Rivalda, the ubiquitous yearbook of the Hungarian theatre scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Regardless  of their actual interest in theatre (or lack thereof), every household that began accumulating books in or before the 1970s owns one or more copies of Rivalda. They are squat, thick and hardbound books with an immediately recognisable dust jacket featuring a black and white photo montage of the year’s Juliet or Queen Gertrudis with over-plucked eyebrows. They are yet to become collectible, but when they do, our parents will all be millionaires.

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, there are the families that have all sorts and often just too many. Like the dude with the Lingels, or the friendly mum-of-two where the kids had all the latest arty children’s books and about two cubic metres of Banana Yoshimoto and Palahniuk piled up on purpose-built storage units fixed above the doors. Or the… well, ourselves. While we are now accustomed to buying books for Kindle and other devices, there’s always an irresistible McSweeney’s volume or a Taschen must-have, or you know, a book you really want and then accidentally buy. And since we’re a bilingual lot, we have Hungarian and English mixed together. This is the situation that resulted in this present blog-post.

When you’re in an English library, you walk past the shelves with your head slightly tilted to the right. When you’re in a Hungarian library you look at the shelf with your head slightly tilted to the left. Why? The text orientation on book spines appears to follow regional standards. In the United States, United Kingdom, Benelux countries, and Scandinavia titles are usually written top-to-bottom. However, in some continental countries, such as Germany, France, Russia and Hungary, titles are written bottom-to-top.

Typographer Stephen Coles opines that the advantage of top-to-bottom orientation is that the spine can be easily read if the book is laid on a table. This seems a little contrived considering that a book can easily be laid on a table two ways. However, this orientation is really more about tradition than logic. If the book is front cover up, the legibility of spine lettering is unimportant. The legibility of the spine becomes important when the books are facing down. Also, if the books are piled horizontally, it doesn’t matter whether the book is facing down or up.

Most typographers, publishers and bookseller would agree that a more important issue is vertical legibility, and bottom-to-top text is easier to read when vertical. Check out Jorge de Buen’s example in the Manual de diseño editorial (source:

All in all, it seems that Northern/Western European, American and other Anglophone book design continues to stick to tradition, while this part of Europe (rather uncharacteristically) chose to follow a more modern and pragmatic path. Putting them next to one another is surprisingly annoying, albeit necessary, since our books are organised by genre, not language.

English lit left, right and centre…

English lit left, right and centre…

So if you plan to walk past our bookshelves, you should have a gentle bobble-head effect of left, right, left, left, right, left, right, etc. Otherwise we might think you are just feigning interest. And don’t forget: I am judging you.

(Image source:

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2 Responses to “Important stuff: Bookspine lettering”

  1. JC Says:

    I have been thinking exactly the same thing and asked a few Hungarians who hadn’t a clue so many thanks for explaining that one to me!

  2. lizstainforth Says:

    Terrifying… goodness know what you made of my meagre Leeds-based fiction collection. Interestingly, I have an old penguin ed. of Brighton Rock where the spine title is written bottom to top. I could never work out why. Perhaps a continental European edition?

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