Mark Lamster | Essays

Rough Cut


Last week I directed my browser to the Amazon page of my forthcoming book, Master of Shadows; though it's a bit early to be tracking its ranking—it does not come out until late October—I did want to make sure the excellent early reviews it has received have made it onto the site. They have, but I was also surprised to see another addition. Blaring out at me, just after the title and in all caps, is the bracketed phrase "ROUGH-CUT EDGE." I presumed, correctly, that this referenced the fact that the book will have what bibliophiles call a deckle (or deckel) edge; that is, the fore edges of its pages (opposite the spine) will be rough hewn as opposed to trimmed to a smooth, flat surface. I thought it odd—a technical glitch?—that the notice about this very nice feature was listed in all caps, and larger than the title. I sent off a note to my publisher, who then put it to Amazon, whose agents responded that the extra-large notice was there intentionally, to avoid blowback from buyers who might be upset about receiving a defective book. Actually, I discovered, that's nothing new. The modern deckle edge is factory produced, but previously it was a natural product of the paper-making and binding processes. The deckled edge is produced when a sheet of paper is made; it is simply the loose pulp fibers at the edge of an untrimmed sheet. When printed sheets were folded and gathered into signatures, their ragged edges were often left untrimmed; sometimes, the signatures were even left uncut, leaving it to the reader to slice open his or her own book, albeit with care. (This luxury guaranteed the book's pristine condition.) By the beginning of the twentieth century, modern printing technology was advanced to the point that books were by standard trimmed at their edges. Ever since, however, publishers of quality books have artificially created the deckle edge to honor the bookmaking tradition, as a conveyor of prestige, and because it simply feels nice in the hand and looks good. (It also makes it easier to keep tabs on your progress as you read.) Needless to say, no good deed should go unpunished. As early as 1900, the New York Times was receiving letters from carping book buyers, outraged by the "deckel trend" or "fad." Here's a classic from 1903: deckel-2 

We Brooklynites have always known how to complain. Compared to some of the other letters received by the paper, however, this is actually on the tame side. While I certainly don't agree with its argument, I will say it's nice to see how seriously people used to take their books—some still do. In any case, let me just state for the record that Master of Shadows, with its very elegant rough edge, is now available for preorder—and at a 34 percent discount.

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