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Altered Book Basics: How to Choose the Right Book to Alter

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Written By Amy L. Sargent
This article originally appeared in ArtTrader Magazine, Spring 2010 Issue 10
The Internet is full of pages that discuss how to alter books and photographs that show off what completed altered book projects look like, but there are very few resources that help someone new to altering books to choose the “right” kind of book to begin their project. That’s where I think sharing a little basic information on book construction can bolster the inspiration and guidelines that the fledgling altered-book artists can locate in many other venues.
This article will cover that very first step of the process—how to find the best book, so that you’re not starting a project that could literally fall apart halfway through the process.
Frankly, I am relatively new to altered books myself. I have only been doing it for a little over a year, and most of what I’ve learned is through trial and error, as well as by spending far too much time drooling over the completed altered books I’ve found on Flickr and through Internet searches.
However, despite my newbie status as an altered book enthusiast and artist, I’ve discovered a gap in most instructions I’ve found for “how to” alter books. Due to a community bookbinding course I took in the early 1990s, and because my MFA in creative writing includes a certificate/specialization in small press operation, I’ve found that I might have a little more knowledge of basic book construction than the average art hobbyist. And it’s been quite handy when trying to bridge the gap between an altered book’s instructions and the final project.
Altered books are a true labor of love, and even the most basic altered book project takes a significant investment of time. In my opinion, it only makes sense, then, to select a book at the outset of the project that will be inexpensive, durable, and attractive, as well as responsive to an artist’s selected medium.
Cost and Availability
First, purchasing a book does not have to be a daunting task, because virtually everywhere, many books wait to be altered. I prefer hardback books with sewn bindings, but these books needn’t be vintage or antique (or expensive). A few great places to find books for around one dollar each are:
  • Library book sales
  • Secondhand stores
  • Dollar stores
  • Flea markets
  • Garage sales
  • The clearance section of your local bookstore
Many bookstores have a box of free books at the doorstep—a perfect place to treasure hunt, because the bookstore owners are thrilled to get rid of them!
And, frankly, you can scan your own bookshelves for a book or two you’re willing to deconstruct. The wonderful thing about altering books is that no one cares if the book is a Reader’s Digest condensed novel, or a cheesy self-help book, or an old algebra textbook. You don’t have to concern yourself with content, which makes purchasing and recycling an inexpensive, “worthless” book a painless procedure.
Durability
Once you settle on a book, don’t just slap down your dollar bill and walk away with your soon-to-become treasure. Take a few minutes to look the book over and determine its durability. Is the binding still strong? Are the covers still in relatively good condition? If the book is ready to fall out of its cover, or if the stitching of the binding appears loose, pass on that book and find another. Altering a book does put stress on a book’s spine—and if you’re already dealing with a delicate binding, you could break the binding halfway through the project, ruining the book.
Take a potential book and hold it by a cover, allowing the pages to hang free. If the binding is strong, the book’s spine will retain its shape [figure 1]. If the binding is weak or broken, a gap will appear between the spine and cover of the book [figure 2]. Put back that book with the weak binding—it’s going to fall apart under the strain of altering.
Choosing a Book to Alter, Figure 1
Figure 1
Choosing a Book to Alter, Figure 2
Figure 2
Choosing a Book to Alter, Figure 3
Figure 3
Also, it is best to choose a book that is comprised of stitched signatures. If you look at the top of the book’s spine [figure 1], you should see a series of little folded booklets—the signatures—that have been then stacked and sewn into the fatter book. Additionally, you want to double-check that these signatures are indeed sewn together. Open the book to the center of one of the signatures, and you should be able to see the stitches at the fold [figure 3]. This binding process holds up to altering in a way that newer, cheaper binding methods (such as thermally activated—or glued—bindings) cannot. In figure 5, you can see how selecting a book with a strong binding allowed me to successfully complete an altered book journal with no worry of the book coming apart.
So, once you locate a book that has a sewn binding comprised of signatures, and a spine and binding that is tight and feels secure, then you’re ready to move on to other considerations.
Aesthetic Appeal
Once you start searching, you will find that the number of inexpensive books with strong bindings is almost astronomical. So, you can start being a little choosier with your purchases—looking at the titles of the books should be part of the thrill of the hunt. Look for titles that take on a new meaning when added to an altered book project, and the possibilities become addictive [figure 4]. I found this little book from the 1950s titled L’Amour at a secondhand shop for 55 cents. The cover is beautifully illustrated—and the inside is full of quotes about love, which I can incorporate into my altered book project.

Choosing a Book to Alter, Figure 4
Figure 4

Choosing a Book to Alter, Figure 5
Figure 5
Also of some importance is the size of the book—in terms of both shape and thickness [figure 5]. You may want to select a thin book of 100 pages or less, especially for a first-time project. Once you begin altering the book, the result might be only 25 pages of art space, which can be quite portable for travel and can be filled quite quickly with art. It’s also satisfying sometimes to choose a book of 300 or more pages and see how the altering process transforms the book into a substantial, impressive brick of altered art.
Responsiveness to Artist Mediums
Frankly, there isn’t much that the altered book artist can do about the pages in a book . . . you’re not going to find a book that was printed on watercolor paper or on Bristol. However, it pays to become familiar with a book’s paper’s tooth, that is, its texture. An older book will have pages with more tooth. Vintage and antique printers didn’t use acid-free paper, so books that are more than 20 years old or so will begin to show some yellowing (or foxing). This older paper will also have more bleed when using markers and paint. Paper in antique books can crumble over time, so the older the book, the more delicate and brittle the pages will be. I try to avoid books that are old enough to have brittle pages.
In contemporary books, paper is usually acid-free. Novels are currently still printed on paper that’s largely wood pulp, so the bleed might still be high, but the yellowing will not be present, and the paper will generally be stiffer and more durable.
However, in many contemporary books, like textbooks, home improvement books, and cookbooks, the paper is glossy finish, which will not work well with colored pencil or markers, but can be much more appealing to a painter armed with a jar of gesso. Glossy pages also work well with some mixed-media techniques, because paint and gesso can be applied and then selectively removed from glossy paper, allowing the book’s original text and images to peek through intentionally.
When purchasing a book with the intent to alter, always flip through the pages, and put your hands on the paper. Feel it. Think about what you plan to add to the book, and determine whether or not the paper’s going to be a good fit. If it isn’t, then walk away.
Choosing a Book to Alter, Figure 6
Figure 6
Final Thoughts
I recently bought a soft cover home d├ęcor book at a Dollar Tree written by Brini Maxwell [figure 6]. While it was soft cover, it has thick glossy pages as well as a sewn, signature binding and a great square shape, so I couldn’t pass it up. It’s full of retro images and it’s not too thick . . . I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it, but I know it will be altered eventually.
The three books pictured here came from my local Salvation Army [figure 7]. I splurged—they were 1.75 apiece. I live in a small town, and the book section is not large . . . but on one day, in about fifteen minutes of browsing, I found all three of them. I’m stocked up on books for a while, but all three were great finds! The bindings are like new, the paper quality is perfect, and most exciting part is right on the cover—The Art of Real Happiness, The Big Die and The Birth of Mischief. I couldn’t have asked for better titles!
I keep a little mental checklist when I’m looking at books—price, durability, aesthetic appeal and the tooth of the paper—and the rest is just serendipity. I really hope that these tips help to make book hunting a little easier—and altering those books less frustrating—for you, too.
Choosing a Book to Alter, Figure 7

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