Monday, February 22, 2010

Uncut Pages

The pleasures derived from the use of a paper knife are tactile, auditory, visual, and especially mental. Progress in reading is preceded by an act that traverses that material solidity of the book to allow you access to its incorporeal substance. Penetrating among the pages from below, the blade vehemently moves upward, opening a vertical cut in a flowing succession of slashes that one by one strike the fibers and mow them down - with a friendly and cheery crackling the good paper receives that first visitor, who announces countless turns of the pages stirred by the wind or by a gaze - then the horizontal fold, especially if it is double, opposes greater resistance, because it requires an awkward backhand motion - there the sound is one of muffled laceration, with deeper notes. The margin of the pages is jagged, revealing its fibrous texture; as fine shaving - also known as "curl" - is detached from it, as pretty to see as a wave's foam on the beach. Opening a path for yourself, with a sword's blade, in the barrier of pages becomes linked with the thought of how much the word contains and concealed: you cut your way through your reading as if through a dense forest.

-- Italo Calvino, If On A Winter's Night A Traveler

I love this passage, which captures so well the unique pleasure that comes from reading a book with uncut pages. Nowadays there's an additional quality to this pleasure that comes from the fact that books aren't sold this way anymore. Only quite old books still have uncut pages, which means that, once you cut one, that's one less book that can give you this pleasure. There's a feeling in cutting a set of pages of doing something irreversible.

The other thing is that, since the book you're cutting is quite old, there's always mixed with the cutting and reading the knowledge, simultaneously melancholy and delightful, that no one has read the book before, despite its age. A little over a year ago I bought, very cheaply, a near-complete set of Sir Walter Scott's novels. They're nearly one hundred and twenty years old, and yet the pages were all uncut until I began to read them. When I started Waverly I couldn't avoid thinking about how many homes or libraries or used bookstores this set must have wandered through in twelve decades, with no one to read them, waiting for me to find them. It's like a romantic comedy with no girl.

When the book is, for instance, a Quarrachi edition of some scholastic author, however, the melancholy overcomes the delight, since theirs are usually the only editions available of these works, and the uncut pages means that not enough people have been reading the scholastics to exhaust decades-old printings.

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