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Uncut pages

Sometime last year, while I was in town, I bought a battered old book out of a box in an antique store. The book is the 10th volume in an edition of Demosthenes in Greek and French on facing pages, printed Paris 1821. It bears the name of a Louisiana monastery that must have bought the set.

Let us round down and say that it was shelved for a 150 years – and in a monastery, a place I imagine, romantically, as reading’s proper kingdom. The outside shows wear; someone took the trouble to put a bookplate in it, and to number it twice on the title page. 150 years worth of cleaning and lifting; 150 years in a monastery library – and the pages have never been cut. The book has never been read.

I can guess what happened. The set was bought by the last generation of French-speaking monks, for the last generation of French-speaking students. The next generation spoke English; and French or Greek were both Greek to them (or German, as the store labeled it).

The tragedy of a worthy book unread is common. To ignore it is part of the discipline of library reading. I find a book whose very existence delights me – beautiful, brilliant, every page glows, would that I could write so well. In an idle, careless moment I flip it over, glance at the sticker or slip that records each checkout. 12 years ago, someone checked it out; 10 years ago, someone else; and then me. I wonder: of what species am I a member? At least there are the three of us.

But this is crankiness. To be useful, books must be abundant: just enough is too few. Infrequent checkouts are almost a sign of health: the book exists in enough copies relative to its readers that some can be deputed to serve as in lighthouses, rescue stations, radar installations, to watch and bide until their hour arrives – the flare goes up, the alarm goes off, the reader arrives.

I hear that many libraries now throw away books that go unread for a year, two years, three. They justify their footprint and budget in serving the tastes of their readers; shelf space for books not in fashion is a scholar’s humor. New-book bookstores work on that principle: the book that no one buys is remaindered, ends as pulp or ash. Commerce is pure democracy: to the majority, all; to the minority, nothing. I suppose that libraries have the right to decide that survival is worth the price of this attitude. And I, who have fatted on discard racks, have no standing to complain.

All writing is of one or more of three kinds: writing for a known audience; writing that creates an audience; and writing that has no true audience. And all three kinds can fail.

You write for an audience; but you have misjudged them. You overestimated them, and they paw through the pages in a staring stupor. You underestimated them, and they flip through the pages in annoyance and disgust. Though pawed over or flipped through, these pages are as uncut as any.

You write to create an audience; but it never shows up. You gathered them together, but you were molding dry sand. You reach out for them, but someone else has already gone farther, and the new heights you worked so hard to reach – someone else has stepped over them, on the way to something even newer.

You wrote for no audience; you made a self-standing mirror of your own mind, copied the microcosm in you and put stars in its firmament; but your mind’s image does not show it to advantage, and your microcosm lacks tourist appeal. Mocked or neglected, these pages are as uncut as any.

How hard it is to communicate at all! To have something to say, to say it, and to have it heard, are each separately as much as can be expected from a lifetime. To routinize the feat, the apparatus of society divides it between academic, writer, journalist; think-tanker, speechwriter, speaker. That they ever happen together is miracle and mercy. It is half the pleasure of reading just to see that it can happen.

As for this book before me: books with uncut pages (“unopened pages” is the proper name, but too weak for a title) are not rare, but not common, and no more are being made.

The easiest way to part such pages is with the edge of an index card; I have boxes of “Super-Dex” Rotary Cut cards, from when such things were still made in Brooklyn, that could do the job and still give a good shave. I tried it on another book with an anomalous pair, and succeeded. But when I come to it: why?

I try not to buy books as artifacts: it is a waste of money and space better given to books for reading. But this is a book I picked up cheaply to practice my French; it is more valuable to me as a curiosity than as a book. I harden my heart to say: here is a book that failed. Its pages shall not be cut.