By Willis Cook
Even if you are a voracious reader you might not know about uncut pages. Sometimes the fore edge of a book (the edge away from the spine) is not trimmed properly and the pages are not cut apart, It’s obvious, isn’t it, that you can’t read a book that way. It used to be a fairly common situation. Back in the days when they made real books, that is, ones with sewn-in signatures ... well, let’s talk about how they made books. Books are printed on large sheets of paper, about the size of newsprint. Several pages are printed on each sheet. In fact, there is a specific number of pages per sheet, depending on the size of the book. For a book known as an octavo (octavo meaning eight) the printed sheet was folded three times, yielding eight sheets or sixteen pages (two pages per sheet, counting front and back).
Each group of sheets folded like that is a signature and the book was assembled by stacking all the signatures in order, sewing them together, gluing on a back cloth and attaching it to the end papers, which were attached to the front and back covers. But before the covers were attached, the page edges were trimmed. If the original sheet folding wasn’t too accurate, the trimming might miss a folded edge or two and when you came to that page, you found two pages joined together at both front and back. The solution is to take your penknife (which every gentleman carries) and slit the pages so you can continue reading. (Sometimes books were deliberately uncut, leaving to the reader the task of cutting all the pages. There was a time when cutting pages was considered a great pleasure.)
The point of this harangue is that if you find a book with uncut pages, you can be sure that it has never been read. I am currently reading “A Farmer’s Year” by H. Rider Haggard, published in 1899 and it is full of uncut pages. Thus, this particular volume has been waiting for 111 years for me to come along and read it.
I can’t explain the delight of cutting book pages. Particularly with an old book, it is something of a ritual of awakening - allowing the book to fulfill its destiny. To find an uncut page is suddenly to see the book in a new light. This is a beautiful young girl who has lain under an enchantment, maybe for a century, waiting for her prince to awaken her with ... will, with his penknife, in this case.
Modern books aren’t made this way any more. There are no sewn signatures; the pages are held together with glue. There are virtually never any uncut pages. And, of course, the modern book comes with a glossy, full-color embossed dust jacket. Some residents of my household maintain that no worthwhile book has ever been published in an embossed dust jacket, but that’s just a personal opinion.
And I suppose that if a modern reader were to come across an uncut page, he or she would immediately take the book back to the bookstore and demand their money back for a “defective” product. Then they would write a snotty entry in their blog telling the world that they would never again read anything that wasn’t on their Kindle or iPad. No doubt their anger would be justified. But still, there are probably thousands of old page-bound books still waiting for an anachronistic reader (which owns a penknife) to come along and read them.
Willis Cook is a retired electrical engineer who was born in New Orleans and grew up in the Mississippi Delta. He lives in Franklin County.