Italy Roundtable: If the Title Fits

On 11 September 2012 by Jessica

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This month the Italy Blogging Roundtable returns after its (now) traditional August break. I’ll tell you there was some serious back-and-forth among the group members picking the topic for the month, and we’ve started some discussions I think will turn into interesting topics in the future, but for September we’ve chosen a single word as our topic: FIT. There are several meanings for the word FIT, and I look forward to reading what definitions the other Roundtable members focus on. For me, FIT conjures up a few reactions.

Thinking of the words “fit” and “Italy” in the same sentence, it’s hard to narrow the thought process down to one relationship between the two. There’s the sheer number of times I’ve slammed into a door, assuming it will open out (like all doors do in the United States), when in fact most Italian doors open inward. There’s my theory that Italians must have a second stomach or hollow leg for all the food they put away while still managing to look fabulous and, so far as I can tell, not being workout fanatics. And then there’s the long-standing personal vendetta I have against the girl at the Diesel outlet, several sizes larger than me, who looked down her nose at my frame and scowled that they didn’t have any jeans that were big enough to fit me.

The idea of “fitting in” as a foreigner is easily the main thing that comes to mind here, the thing that ties all of these experiences together, but it’s a huge topic – several books have already been written on it. What I want to focus on, then, is one tiny – and potentially insignicant – example of being reminded of difference. It’s something I only noticed recently, and frankly I still don’t know who’s the odd man out here.

Look at that picture of one bookshelf in my office, where I’ve stuck a few Italian books in among the English ones. The titles may not be so illegible that you’d physically need to shift your head from one side to the other to read the whole row, but you can’t help but notice that the Italian book titles are pointed one way while the English book titles are pointed the other.

What’s the reason for this? And is it possible this simple thing can mean something more profound?

The Wikipedia entry on bookbinding says simply that “conventions differ about the direction in which the title on the spine is rotated.” In the United States, the custom is predominantly top-to-bottom writing, while in most of continental Europe it’s bottom-to-top. There are several message board discussions and blog posts on the topic, and plenty of references to the fact that there’s no industry standard, but nowhere could I find any historical information about why a country’s book publishers would have chosen one direction over the other. Some try to make the argument that bottom-to-top titles (like the Italians use) are easier to read when you’re browsing title in a bookstore or library that tilting one’s head to the left and moving along a shelf to the right. Others say this is awkward from a body movement perspective, since you’re moving your body in one direction with your head tilted the other way. Many point out that the U.S. standard of top-to-bottom titles is the only one that makes the titles appear right-side-up when books are lying flat with the cover facing up, but of course that’s not how most books are displayed either in stores or at home.

Aside from the obvious interesting “why” questions about these differences, I’m left wondering whether something like the direction in which a book’s title is written on its spine can have anything to do with personality type. Are people who live in countries with mostly top-to-bottom titles different from people from places where they see mostly bottom-to-top titles? Does seeing the world (or at least its book titles) with your head constantly tilted to the left shift anything else about your perception of things from what it would be if you were used to always tilting your head to the right?

To be honest, I doubt something as trivial as the direction in which book titles are written can have that much of an impact on a culture – but then again, there are plenty of seemingly trivial things that have profound impacts on culture, so maybe it’s not such a stretch.

For the purposes of this post, noticing the difference in the direction of book titles on my own shelf just served as another reminder of what a long and complex process it is to fit into another culture. You may master the language and learn the traditions, but there are things we internalize growing up in our own cultures that simply don’t transfer when we move to a new one. Learning to tilt your head to the left instead of to the right when you’re looking at titles in an Italian bookstore may not seem like much of a concession, but Italians don’t have to think about it. They just do it. We spend a lifetime learning those silent signals, so being presented with new ones (that are no longer silent) adds small hurdles to an otherwise ordinary day – and those hurdles can add up.

When I first started dreaming of an expat life in Italy, I thought I was being more realistic than the countless people who had walked out of a showing of “Under the Tuscan Sun” uttering the words, “I’m going to move to Italy!” And I still believe that I did have a more realistic attitude toward the process, even then. But what the ensuing years have taught me is that even back then I had a hell of a lot to learn – and I still do. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned in all this time is that becoming an expat in Italy, no matter how prepared I think I am for it, will always be more difficult than I thought.

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

What have my fellow Italy Roundtable bloggers come up with on the topic of FIT this month? There’s only one way to find out. Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.

Oh, and if you want to read more of the discussions on the whole question of what direction book titles should go, here are some of the links I read:

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7 Responses to “Italy Roundtable: If the Title Fits”

  • Okay I had never noticed this before or even thought about it and I just assumed it was perfectly normal to have to flip your head from side to side when looking at a bookshelf.

    I’ve now gone through my Italian-printed books, and indeed the spine is printed bottom to top. The exception are my Touring Club Italia books which have the spine title printed from top to bottom. And my Bell’Italia magazines, which have stuff printed on the spine, are also printed top to bottom – maybe the magazine protocol is different.

    Love Alexandra’s theory, very interesting about the manuscripts. They must have been stacked with the title page facing down though.

    And of course I had to check the books on my shelves printed in Canada and the UK, and they both have the same title orientation as the US :-)

  • It drives me CRAZY when the title on the spine is bottom to top! I want to be able to have a stack of books on a table and have the titles be right side up. In my mind this is clearly the *right* way. It just makes more sense. :)

    • Not surprisingly, for most people, the “right” way is the way we grew up with. I read the exact response (only in reverse, naturally) in the comments on European sites about how ridiculous it is when the titles go top-to-bottom. :)

  • Test this: lay the italian book down on the shelf so that the title page is facing up – like you’re putting it on a coffee table. Does the title read right side up?
    If the answer is YES, my theory is as follows. When books were first bound (in Italy) rather than rolled, they were stored flat, not standing up. Many of these books are very big and heavy, so standing put too much pressure on them. So, the writing on the spine was in the direction that worked when the book lay flat on the shelf and the cover pointed upwards. This much I know for sure (I taught a course on manuscripts). I wonder if this carried over into modern day practise.

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