The complex thrill of uncut pages

Once, during the latter stages of my Ph. D. work, I went to the Cambridge University Library only to find that someone had borrowed the borrowable copy of volume 5 of the Histoire Générale de Languedoc in its revised edition and not returned it. I know, I know, happens to you all the time, right? They continued not to return it subsequently, anyway, and while these days such a difficulty is rendered negligible by the fact that the thing is online now, then it was quite the difficulty, at least for me right then. Cambridge UL however had a second copy, accessible only via the Rare Books Room, so I went there and requested it, and when it came up its pages were uncut; in the course of the UL’s ownership of the Acton Collection within which it resided, and of course since its actual printing in 1872, no-one had wanted to read this book albeit, apart from Lord Acton who had no excuse except his other 59,999 books, probably not least because of the other copy that you didn’t have to order up not then being missing. So I sat there for an hour unable to work on it while someone behind the desk slowly and carefully went through every folio with a paper knife, and I felt like an awful vandal. Why am I telling you all this? Because of this, dear readers!

A copy of Federico Udina Martorell's El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Barcelona 1951)

My own copy of Federico Udina Martorell’s El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Barcelona 1951).

This was an ABE moment brought on by one of my book plans. I had told someone that the only reason I couldn’t start on one of these books was that I probaby needed to own the actual standard edition of the Sant Joan de Ripoll charters, then one evening I wondered how much that would cost to buy, and whoops, ABE and it arrived with me a few weeks later. And yup, look. It was uncut too.

Splayed pages of an uncut copy of Federico Udina Martorell's El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Barcelona 1951)

My reaction this was quite complex. In the first place, there was vexation. Now, apart from anything else, I needed a paper knife, and using the book would be laborious even then unless I too wanted to spend that solid hour carefully going slit… slit… slit…. In the second place, I felt quite powerfully that this would be spoiling it. You can’t put a book back like that, after all; as before, it seems weirdly like vandalism even though the manufacturers and indeed authors always meant this to happen and you can’t use the book without doing it.

Federico Udina Martorell's El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Barcelona 1951)

Those rough uneven edges will never be the same!

But lurking behind that is a deeper question. This book was published in 1951, and at that point or soon after, presumably, someone decided they needed a copy, but then never opened it. Perhaps, indeed, there has been more than one owner of this volume before me who never quite got round to actually using it. They’ve left me no clues. But who would buy a volume of Catalan charters with all their supporting palæographical and chronological difficulties studied, the perfect entry to the study of these documents, yet, already, and then never open it? What historian was working on this stuff and then got diverted? Why did it never get used? The book itself has become a source for an abortive endeavour of study about which, never having been marked, it can tell us nothing further, and it’s just that little bit maddening…


25 responses to “The complex thrill of uncut pages

  1. I once received an Interlibrary Loan book with uncut pages–not all, just some. So we had to have a conversation with the lending library as to who would cut the pages (I preferred our preservation department do it but I think the lending library didn’t mind if I did it). I think I did show it to some students first, as an object lesson.
    As I read your post, I thought you were going to take a short cut (hmm) from slitting and just whack the whole edge off like older book binders used to do….

  2. Well, maybe in 1951 (or shortly after) no one decided to buy this book, but it was just given as a present or complimentary exemplar to someone who wasn’t really interested. At least this seems most probable to me. Or it was handed over for review, but the actual reviewing work was done with the issue in the reviewer’s institutional library, so there was no need to cut it open.

  3. My mind immediately invents likely stories: death, funds suddenly dried, sent to war, debilitating illness, or the love of his life come to distract him. Though I’d feel with you: it’s savage to cut it after all these years. Yet . . . the sheer delight of totally unread words. That book is a treasure; I trust it is serving you well.

    • Well, it’s an odd sort of totally unread, because I have read another copy cover-to-cover, which is how I knew I needed my own. So I can at least afford to be sparing with my incisions. I think Clemens’s scenarios are probably more realistic than yours, but where’s the fun in that? It’s just that I can all too well imagine never reading plenty of the books I own… But I think I have at least opened them all in a vague attempt to remember what is in them that I might need later…

      • Confess, yes, two or three books on my shelves not yet read (Song of Roland, and some Indian sagas. Others have been plundered, then left with many treasures in tact – awaiting need. But I’m sure that’s the same for many people.

        • I have just finished teaching the Song of Roland for the first time, and I have to say, I’m rather glad. It’s a horrible sort of text. Somewhere between bigoted propaganda for holy war and an ultra-violent military drinking song…

          • Yea, great; that’s encouraging! And I suppose that’s why William’s warrior sung it (supposedly) on their way to Hastings. Isn’t there also something in it about betrayal? (as I remember hearing.)

            • Oh yes, really quite a lot. I’d say it was the central theme except that that is obviously (to me) gratuitous set-piece tournament-style slaughter. There is, however, as you know there would have to be, a tangly scholarly argument about how much the text we have, in an Anglo-Norman manuscript of the end of the twelfth century and at a length that would have taken hours to recite, resembles anything warriors might have sung the night before shipping out a century plus earlier…

              • Perhaps they just picked out a few gutsy lines, made of it a chorus, and accompanied it with copious flagons of wine (which numbed their senses so thereafter no one noticed how clipped was their abridged version!) and now I’ve amused myself with the imagery

                • That is, in fact, more or less the opinion of the article I was reading about this (for your reference, A. Taylor, ‘Was there a Song of Roland?’, Speculum 76 (2001), pp. 28–65) but your imagery is much livelier :-) He thinks that the texts of such things (because his thesis would by implication cover romances as well as epics) were mainly around to give a context for the good bits people actually performed and that the audience for the text and that for the song might be quite different. I’d agree except that the evidence for actual full performance that he has to dismiss as literary convention considerably outweighs the equally literary evidence he gives for performance of excerpts. Still, it’s to think about, especially in the context that Wace was describing (a century after the fact, let’s remember).

                  • Given the lengthy ‘feasts’ of the times, the need to impress, coupled with the poets’ ability–whether he be of the troubadour-type or of yet greater status and repute–I see the possibility and probability of full-length recitals as a means of the host gaining additional status. I think William would would certainly have commissioned a performance, though I’m less sure of the Breton contingents, eg. Count Alan of Richmond (let’s not forget who Roland was in relation to the Bretons). We’re inclined to underestimate the–hard to say poets’, more like actors’ ability not only in committing something of this length to memory (I can’t even remember the lyrics of rock songs all the way through) but also in varying his inflections and gestures to add to his dramatic performance. Yea, I can see the possibility of sitting through a performance with as much enjoyment and attention as, say, Peter Jacksons’ Lord of the Rings (all 3 of the trilogy!).

                    • Well exactly. If we as modern thinking humans can enjoy such things as a Die Hard marathon, we should really allow for similar tastes among our predecessors! (And the Song of Roland has much of Die Hard about it, in particular the staged repetition…)

                    • Giving truth to the adage: There’s nothing new . . .

  4. I had this happen to me a couple of times last year. Elected to open the pages I needed, and shot a short video of me doing so. The footage can’t be added to the book (short of burning to a dvd) and exists on my hard drive far removed from its source, but at the time it made me feel like I’d offset the damage by creating something new.

    • It all has me pondering why we experience it as damage so clearly. This is after all how they were designed to be used, but I suppose that as well as that never-the-same thing there is also the fear of tearing a page with a bad slice and the general sense that as historians preservation of a document in its original condition is incumbent on us where possible… I don’t know, it’s pretty visceral for me. I do like your response, though. In the midst of destruction we are in creation…

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  6. Happened to me last week in the Monash library. Some pages of a book I wanted to copy for selections in a class reading pack had been bound in in correctly, and as a result were too short to have been cut open at the top by the normal process. I toyed fleetingly with thumbing them open like an envelope and just continuing on in my mission, but like you I couldn’t bear the thought of damaging it, so I took it to the info desk and left it for someone else to worry about. Cowardice and responsibility lay cheek by jowl!

  7. About two years ago I bought myself an original copy of one of Edmond Le Blant’s 19th century editions of Gallic Christian inscriptions. Not one of the 21st century reprints, but the original edition – so not cheap. I was very much looking forward to being able to leaf through it at my leisure. It arrived with the pages uncut. They remain uncut. It never really occurred to me to cut the pages, but it means that I’ve never been able to use the volume. Even so for some reason it feels more precious for being in its original form.

    • OK, that beats mine both for age and delicacy! You have to wonder where these books had been all this time! Mine could be explained by one aspirational scholarly purchase, but yours has to have come through generations or else found a home such as JPG describes which nevertheless eventually dispensed with it…

      I’m delighted by how much of a chord this post seems to have evoked, by the way, it makes me feel far less weird, but I very much hope that I can promise new content again over the upcoming weekend and then perhaps more regularly thereafter. Keep watching!

      • But the next owner of my book might presume that I too am disinterested in the volume based on the uncut pages – and I couldn’t be more interested in what’s on those pages. Why couldn’t it be generations of people with the same attitude as me? Optimistic much?

        • Oh, very rarely more than is strictly warranted :-) This is just a negative variant of the old maxim never to blame on malice (or intent) what can be satisfactorily explained by incompetence…

  8. I may have mentioned this before, but long ago the UL had a ‘dead periodicals section’ in the shadows of North Wing 6, the bibliographical equivalent of the tar pits in California in which preserved mammoths are sometimes discovered. Among other rarities, they had a Swedish archaeological journal which expired some time in the early C20th. Life’s too short to have checked properly, but it looked as if none of the pages in any of the volumes had ever been cut. It was strangely disquieting.

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