A Permanent Book.

I presume I’m not the only one who remembers with fondness those cheap, sturdy Dover books that had such a fascinating range of topics, at least a few of which would be attractive to any particular browser; I doubtless still have some kicking around odd corners of my bookshelves. Karin Falcone Krieger has an interesting history of the company at Contingent:

While my proximity to the Dover Bookstore may have given me unique access to its huge and varied catalog, the publisher is well-loved by people of wide-ranging interests for its affordability, accessibility, and design. Started by Heyward and Blanche Cirker in their apartment in post-war Queens, NY, Dover Publications produced 10,000 book titles over the course of 80 years. They built a profitable company through a number of unique and innovative publishing practices, most notably filling their catalog with republished versions of books that had fallen out of copyright.

Josh MacPhee, a Brooklyn designer and archivist, likes the striking graphic design of early Dover covers, but also the philosophy he sees behind the books themselves: the “nearly unique belief that bedrock math, science, logic, anthropology, and history texts should not only be available to a broad, general audience, but that if made affordable, this audience would buy them.” Dover, he argues, “is arguably as political a publishing project as the most anarchist of anarchist book outfits.” […]

In 1941 Hayward and Blanche Cirker began their small business in their Forest Hills, NY apartment, the Dover, for which the company is named. Hayward worked in the publishing industry briefly before deciding he wanted to be his own boss, selling remaindered textbooks. After discovering that the copyright to a particular German textbook had been voided by the federal government because of the war, Hayward published Tables of Functions with Formulas under the Dover imprint, photographing the pages and using offset printing to avoid paying a typesetter. This out-of-print reference work for physicists, mathematicians, and engineers became the first Dover Book.

The venture was a success and a business model he would follow going forward: looking for materials whose copyright had expired and publishing them under the Dover imprint. The Cirkers and Dover’s editors combed the entire history of print for works that could be published under this model. Dover’s editors never revealed the secrets of exactly where or how they found the originals to reproduce, though editor Stanley Appelbaum recounts borrowing a “priceless” manuscript from a private library, personally escorting it to the photographer, and returning it the same day.

I don’t think I ever asked myself where the name Dover came from; I certainly wouldn’t have guessed it was a Queens apartment building!


  1. Christopher Henrich says

    I am pleased to read a friendly comment about Dover Publications, having been a fan thereof since 1953. I note with some concern that Karin Falcone Krieger writes about Dover in the past tense, as if it had ceased operations. Its website is alive (I just checked) and looks flourishing. Long may it continue!

    … Since writing that paragraph, I have read Krieger’s article. It does not bode well for the future of Dover. Alas.

  2. squiffy-marie von bladet says

    Not only do I remember Dover, I continue to be an active customer of their fine catalogue (“catalog”). They recently acquired the rights to Do Carmo’s noted book on differential geometry, and I took a punt on the kindle edition over Christmas when I managed to visit Portugal without my carefully curated pile of holiday reading, and I am pleased to report that the e-ification is done very well. (And I’ve got my eye on É Cartan’s book on spinors too, if it comes to that.)

    It is also true that in an age where the price maths (“math”) books is rising and the quality plummeting (poorly bound photocopy-quality print on demand is common), Dover continues to produce good sturdy cheap books, if you can live with a certain datedness of content.

    What a spectacular bummer it will be if this excellent company ceases to pursue its defining forms of excellence, I will miss the h*ck out of it!

  3. squiffy-marie von bladet says

    (I never wondered how they got their name, though.)

  4. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I particularly appreciate the “sturdy” aspect. When I was a Berkeley at the end of the 1960s I bought quite a few cheap paperback novels. They have all now almost fallen to bits and I’m throwing them away (in some cases after re-reading them). In contrast Dover books seem to last for ever.

  5. I’m long-term fan of Dover— learned complex variable theory, many years ago, from a Dover reprint. Also learned what ‘sewn in signatures’ means.

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    From Wikipedia:
    “Dover paperbacks had sewn pages, unlike most paperbacks which were held together with glue and subject to page drop-out. “

  7. A paperback Fools die disintegrated in my hands, and I finished it in thin instalments.

  8. Since writing that paragraph, I have read Krieger’s article. It does not bode well for the future of Dover. Alas.

    Yes, I considered including that sad coda, but I couldn’t bring myself to. Let them find out when they click the link, I decided.

  9. It does not bode well for the future of Dover.
    This reminds me that Sir Vera Lynn is currently 102 not out.

  10. Christopher Culver says

    I was fortunate to grow up in the 1990s in a time when Dover Thrift Editions were still around $1. That amount of money seemed negligible even for a young adolescent and so I was introduced to tons of classic literature I might otherwise have never read. I was saddened on later visits back to the United States to find that Dover soon raised the prices of the Thrift Editions to levels that, while they might still seem “cheap” to the adult and employed, were probably no longer so cheap that young people would readily take a risk on unfamiliar titles.

    Arguably today a series like the Dover Thrift Editions is not needed for discovering literature, because there is Project Gutenberg and everyone has a phone or Kindle to read PG releases on. But there was a generation that grew up over the few years when there were no cheap Thrift Editions, nor a convenient mobile device to read PG releases, and they missed out.

  11. Christopher Culver says

    Anyone know what Krieger is talking about when she says that the Jewish Travelers in the Middle Ages book was earlier published “under a dated and offensive title”? According to Worldcat, the original title of the Routledge book which Dover reprinted was simply Jewish Travelers (Incidentally, Routledge appear to have themselves reprinted the book more recently at their usual obscene prices). My guess is that Krieger misremembered the original title, on the basis of the back-cover text, as The Wandering Jew.

    In this case we should be grateful that the original title of a Dover reprint was so easy to find. I have a Dover language textbook were tracking down the original publication was very difficult indeed, and I’m saving this story for when and if I ever get back into blogging myself.

  12. There’s nothing dated nor inherently offensive about Wandering Jew, though. If you look at the Wikipedia entry the name appears in comics, in SF titles, and in a series of paintings by Chagall. Then there’s the well-known plant of that name. I’m getting pretty tired of being told what to be offended by. When I was a lad [p.94]

  13. Dover and $EMPLOYER are in some sense corporate cousins. Dover is a subsidiary of LSC Communications, and $EMPLOYER is a subsidiary of Donnelley Financial Solutions, both spun off a few years ago from R. R. Donnelley. The latter is a conglomerate that was originally a printing company, though $EMPLOYER has nothing to do with printing except that there is usually plenty of copier paper in the closet.

    There is no connection at all between RRD and R. H. Donnelley, the phone directory publishers, except that R. H. was the son of R. R. who did not go into the family business; RHD is now known after several mergers as Thryv.

    A novice asked the Master: “In the East, there is a great tree-structure that men call ‘Corporate Headquarters’. It is bloated out of shape with vice presidents and accountants. It issues a multitude of memos, each saying ‘Go Hence!’ or ‘Go Hither!’ and nobody knows what is meant. Every year new names are put onto the branches, but all to no avail. How can such an unnatural entity exist?”

    The Master replied: “You perceive this immense structure and are disturbed that it has no rational purpose. Can you not take amusement from its endless gyrations? Do you not enjoy the untroubled ease of programming beneath its sheltering branches? Why are you bothered by its uselessness?”

    The Tao of Programming

  14. @AJP Crown: I don’t find the name “Wandering Jew” offensive, ordinarily, but it certainly has a potentially offensive origin. At its root, the story of the Wandering Jew comes from the Pauline tradition of the “perfidious Jews'” rejection of the Messiah. The story can be handled respectfully (as in A Canticle for Leibowitz), but that may be the exception, not the rule.

    Obviously, one can’t go through life being offended by every bit of terminology with an iniquitous or derogatory origin (like “Dutch oven”). However, I don’t think it is reasonable either to ask other people not to be offended in those cases.

  15. Let me vote on behalf of all calligraphers in favour of Dover – How else could we have D. V. Thompson on Medieval Painting AND his version of Cennino Cennini – vital! Along with innumerable books reproducing crazy line-drawn versions of illuminated or illuminatable alphabets (I’m not so sure those are good things…). Also books on Celtic Decoration…
    Dover should be subsidized as a National Treasure.

  16. While Project Gutenberg (and the Web, in general) is great for getting access to older works that are pure prose, anything with significant graphic elements (including mathematics) is a lot trickier and slower to digitize. Where Dover reprints of older books have been available, I have often found them very useful.

  17. I hadn’t thought about Dover books in years, but as soon as I read the name I had a clear memory of my grandfather handing me a crisp twenty dollar bill and a Dover catalog when I was about eight or nine. He was a quiet and reserved man, who I hadn’t seen much of at that time, and I was a quiet and reserved child, but that gift immediately won me over.

  18. I don’t know, Brett. There is, of course, undeniably racist or sexist language but I don’t need to give examples because we all know the difference between those and the phrase wandering Jew. If the writer is looking to be offended by things, that’s her right. I object to being co-opted, told that it IS dated and offensive, as if I ought to find it dated & offensive too. Just call me perfidious Albion.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    The introduction to the original (now public domain) version of “Jewish Travelers” begins with the sentence “The wandering Jew is a very real character in the drama of history.” I’m assuming the intro is the work of the editor/translator Elkan Nathan Adler (1861-1946), who might confess if summoned out of the grave by Ms. Krieger to being dated but I expect would deny being offensive. (He sounds from the wikipedia page about him to have been an interesting fellow.)

    Adler’s rather lengthy introduction ends, by the way, with this striking paragraph:

    After the sixteenth century, geographical discoveries had made the whole world familiar to most people and the traveler only journeyed afield, with a specific object, which could hardly be of general interest or importance. The wandering Jew becomes less the diplomatist or scientist and more of the bagman and beggar. But he still remains a loyal link between the scattered members of the Diaspora, pious and alert and generous both in what he expects and what he gives.

  20. Christopher Henrich: “Krieger’s article … does not bode well for the future of Dover.”
    Sorry to hear of Dover Publications’s fate. They were useful when I was building my collection of Lewis Carroll’s works; some of those I found published by Dover but by no other publisher. Their musical scores were attractively cheap, too.

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