The book chiropractor

Lately the title has described me. I come across a book with a spinal injury, and I give it care.

The descriptor feels somewhat odd thanks to my real-life experiences with chiropractic, neither of which inspire me to try it again. The first guy felt everyone should go to the chiropractor for everything, as the first point of medical contact. He was very entrepreneurial. The second guy was pulling a flim-flam on the insurance company; he also was very entrepreneurial. I know there are people who swear by chiropractic, and I am happy for them, but I probably will not be joining them soon. Feels too MLM.

What does make me happy is that I’ve figured out how to fix most broken paperback spines. It requires book tape, care, book glue, patience, waxed paper, a cutter that will make a very straight cut, q-tips, care, and great patience.

Why you should not…

Why you should not just use packing tape: because it will more easily crinkle, will age badly, will be completely unforgiving if you happen to begin sticking it down wrong, and because it’s not as thick. If you are serious about doing this, go to Vernon and get the right stuff.

Why you should not just use rubber cement, or Elmer’s, or some other glue you have laying around: because none of those will combine the properties found in book glue, and everything will work worse. If you use some other glue, and it screws things up, remember that I told you that would occur. Get it from Vernon.

Why you should not just use scissors: because the line must be absolutely straight, and you cannot reliably do that with scissors.

Getting going

There are two very common types of paperback spinal breaks. In the first, you can see the gap between portions of the pageblock (that’s the pages; the part you read). In the second, the gap is so wide you can get a clear look at the inside of the spine (which is probably badly creased and may be coming apart. Sometimes pieces of the pageblock are fully detached, or just individual sheets.

Before you start, cut off several 1″ wide strips of waxed paper. You will be wanting these and won’t want to mess with cutting them in mid-job.

The first order of business is to shore up the spine’s exterior. This must be done: to hold the thing together while you fix the pageblock connections, to confine any glue that could otherwise leak through, and because you would be having to do it anyway, so might as well do it first. A line of book tape down the spine, properly slicked down, will at least give you a bit of support.

The potentially messy part

Next, turn to the worst break in the pageblock. If there are several, go for the most hideous ones starting from back. Gently spread the block apart; for the milder sort of break, a line of glue along the middle third is probably enough. For the bad ones, be more generous. If there are several adjacent pages with breaks, start with the bottom one. Then take a q-tip, supporting the book with the other hand, and run it along the break to distribute the glue and push it into the break.

Don’t be too sloppy. It is almost inevitable that you’ll leave residual lines of glue above the q-tip on both sides of the break; take another and clean that off as best you can. You can’t get all of it off, but it is very important to remove all possible glue that is not down in the break; that is where you’re going to put the waxed paper. Your theoretical perfect glue line is way down in the break, just obscures its edges, shows little shine on the paper and no lines above where you ran the q-tip, and doesn’t leak out either end.

Why so fussy? Isn’t this waxed paper? Doesn’t waxed paper come right off? I’ve experimented and made the mistakes. It’s not true that book glue won’t stick at all to waxed paper; it is true that waxed paper can very carefully, very slowly be detached from small amounts of book glue. Do it too soon or too fast and the paper will tear, leaving tabs of it deep down in the crack where you’ll have to tweezer them out. You just fixed that crack; therefore, shoving a metal object into it, which will partly separate it again, runs counter to your entire intention. What is more, if you think about it, you’ve just cut the waxed paper. You’re shoving the unwaxed cut edge into the middle of the glue; the edge is the part to which the glue can take hold. And there’s no way around it, as there is no reasonable way to re-wax the cut edge. The glue will attach to its fibers and you will have to ease the paper loose or end up with a lot of remainder.

Would clingwrap work better for this? I think it’d be a pain to keep straight. I can barely even get a bowl of guac covered with that stuff. Foil would most surely tear at exactly the wrong times, as it always does.  I suppose if money were no object, one could use gallon ziplock bags without opening them, pushing them in bottoms first. I would certainly test them beforehand, lest it turn out they form a real bond with the glue that waxed paper does not. Book glue looks like Elmer’s but dries to a rubbery solid.

Anyway, with all that well in mind, and with excess glue mopped up, take a strip of waxed paper and slide it gently into the break almost as far as it will go. If there is a loosened page at the break, work it back into proper position. Close the book, which should now look as if some oddball decided that waxed paper would make a wonderful bookmark.

If there are more breaks, continue to fix them this way from bottom to top. How you decide which side is which, that’s up to you; what is important is that you don’t jump around the pageblock, but start from the lowest side and work to the highest (if the front cover was up, that would be from back to front). That way you will not need to disturb the breaks you have already glued.


When done, set the book someplace where nothing will mess it up, put a paperweight on it, and leave it.

If you let the glue dry at least three days, the waxed paper will be fairly easy to work loose. Open gently to the spot with the fixed break, and use a plastic tool like the back of a picnic knife to move back and forth along the inside, separating the waxed paper from the pageblock on both sides. When you sense that any further pushing on the plastic knife will begin to undo your repairs, stop and begin to ease the waxed paper out starting from one end. Be kind, and pull it upward where possible (almost directly away from the spine, slightly angled). Try not to let any pieces get detached, but it often happens near the middle.

Repeat all this for the next break you fixed.

Examine the book now as if you hadn’t fixed anything. Anything that still needs fixing, repeat the fixing steps and three days of subsequent waiting.

I told you it took patience.

Achieving dominance over book repair space and time

When you’ve fixed them all, though, the best description of the feeling is that one has resurrected a book. It was doomed, on its way to fall to tragic pieces. Now it can be read, enjoyed, studied, laughed at, scowled at, disagreed with, and passed on to other readers. And as you keep at this, you will get defter at all of it.

It may fall apart someday, but that isn’t going to be today or next year.


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