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Never cracks a book

Posted by Smokey Stover on October 25, 2006

In Reply to: Never cracks a book posted by pamela on October 25, 2006

: : : : : : : : : : : what is the literal meaning of "never cracks a book" and also what is the figurative meaning of "never cracks a book".

: : : : : : : : : : Never opens a book. Literal and figurative. It refers to cracking the spine of a book. Not a good thing.

: : : : : : : : : I was taught (maybe by my mother, maybe by a librarian) to never lay a book page-side down. It would crack the spine. Here's some information from a site on antique book care:

: : : : : : : : : Always use bookmarkers. Avoid folding corners or pages. Pens, pencils, any objects left in books can cause the spine to crack and break. Very thick book markers or gem clips are also not a good idea.

: : : : : : : : : Remove from the shelf properly. Reach to the rear to push slightly toward you, then grab the sides with all fingers. Avoid the temptation to pull on the top spine, which is the first visible place of wear and freigh.

: : : : : : : : : Opening any book more than 190 ° (flat) causes the spine to break and crack over time. Always support the book's spine while it is open, never forcing it to lay open.

: : : : : : : : : Wash hands before and after handling all books. Lotion, sweat, etc. can cause soil stains. Germs can also be passed to you from used, library, and antique/vintage books.
: : : : : : : : :

: : : : : : : : Literally, then, the "cracked" spine indicates the book was opened. Figuratively, "she never cracked a book before the test" means she didn't do any of the reading she was expected to do; she did not study.

: : : : : : : A number of Websites devoted to definitions think one of the more general definitions of "crack" is involved, namely, to crack open, to open up for use or consumption--or for reading and study. I have often heard the phrase as "crack open a book," and I believe this is what is meant by cracking a book, that is, opening it. Cracking the spine is relatively rare collateral damage when you crack open a few books. The two are not connected except insofar as they involve books.
: : : : : : : SS

: : : : : : I understand "crack a book" the way Smokey does. In a car, "Would you crack that window for me?" is a request to open a window "just a crack," not to break the glass. ~rb

: : : : : A couple of factlets. The term "crack the books" dates back to the 1930s, U.S. ("Cassell's Dictionary of Slang" by Jonathon Green, Wellington House, London, 1998). "Crack" comes from the German "Krach" meaning a loud noise. ("The Dictionary of Cliches" by James Rogers, Wings Books, Originally New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985). I am sticking to my original theory, slightly amended. That to crack a book refers to the cracking sound when one opens a new book, the cracking being a precursor to actually cracking the spine.

: : : : : At the ESC household, we always have bookmarks at the read. Friends don't let friends crack the spines of books.

: : : : Sorry, but I'm going against you too ESC. It means she didn't open a book even the tiniest bit as in "Will you crack open the window just a crack?". By your new definition, I hardly ever crack a book as I get mine at the library - they're already all softened up and "pre-cracked".

: : : I didn't think "crack a book" (i.e. open a book) had anything to do with physical damage to the spine. I thought (to myself, if I fancy) that it came from the noise that a hardback sometimes makes when it is opened for the first time. If so, the sound comes from the hinge (the part between the spine and the cover)and not the spine. Hardbacks are normally bo und i n such a manner that they can be opened and read with very little visible damage to the spine, the damage coming from the types of mistreatment that's been mentioned. I must admit that I didn't consider paperbacks in this. FIY, I was taught that the correct way to remove a book from the shelf (when preservation is an issue), is to push the adjoining books back and then grasp it by the sides. Pamela

: : I'll modify the above slightly, by saying that the spine may be implicated in the cracking sound - the spine would be flexing outward (i.e. curving) for the first time). Pamela

: As a final note "crack a window" to mean "open a window just a crack" is not something I've ever heard, so this common use of "crack" meaning to open (i.e. not related to the sound of a book cracking) is something that I'm unfamiliar with. In Australia, we do crack a codie (meaning to open a beer), but I assumed that this was to do with the noise of a beer opening. Pamela

The OED rarely makes plain the connection of figurative or referred uses to the original use, but in the case of "crack v." it gives a clue, namely, "orig. To make a dry sharp sound in breaking, to break with this characteristic sound; hence, in branch I, mainly or exclusively of the sound; in II, of the act of breaking."

In the question of what does it mean to crack a book, some of us have emphasized the sound, some the break, and some both. One can imagine (with all the dangers attendant on supplanting hard fact with imagination) pathways leading from the original roots to the modern colloquial meanings of crack. Clearly (or as clearly as I can interpret it), according to the OED, the verb meaning a kind of sound came first, then the things that might cause the sound, and then, perhaps the things caused at the same time as the sound. That is, a hard blow or smack would cause the crack sound, and would also cause something partially to break leaving incompleted fissures, as in a cracked glass. A hard blow could also cause things simply to break, in which case things might be broken open, or cracked open (broken originally, perhaps, with a cracking sound, like breaking into your piggy bank). Figuratively, then, if Holmes cracked the case it means he broke it open, figuratively speaking, so that it no longer was locked away from scrutiny. Ditto the cracked code.
How about cracking the window? Well, the Americans invented, in the 19th century, the cracked door, or the door cracked open. There was a sort of fissure between the door and the frame, not as close as in a cracked glass, but still, a narrow opening. Later still, of course, the cracked window, usually found in the verbal expression, "I cracked the window," or "I left the window cracked open." (There are, naturally, less benign ways of cracking a window.) This ultimately comes from the notion of "break," damaging or striking in such a way as to cause a crack, except that we go directly to the crack (no longer a sound), bypassing the blow that used to cause it.

While one can't be entirely sure, I'm content to think that cracking a book is like cracking a safe, that is, breaking into it or breaking it open. Often the book will yield a treasure as great as that in a safe.

If you wish, on the other hand, to crack the spine, I suggest that while photocopying pages you put the cover down on the book (opened onto the platen) and press hard. You can often wreck the spine that way, sometimes with a gratifying sound of cracking.