How To: Slicing pages in an uncut book

I recently hit the jackpot in terms of book ownership. A nearby religious community was purging their entire library, and I managed to pick up nearly 400 volumes of mostly rare and classic theology and philosophy books. I picked up plenty from Ratzinger, Rahner, and Newman, as well as possibly the complete works of Fulton J. Sheen.

It was a great boon for my current project. I am working on writing a book on evolutionary theology, and so I grabbed a boatload of books by and about Teilhard de Chardin as well as other books on evolution, including several works from an early Catholic promoter of evolution named St. George Jackson Mivart.

I’m especially excited to read Mivart’s works, but there’s a problem: the books were printed in 1892, and sometimes books that old actually have pages that are stuck together. I first came across this years ago while reading Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights at Franciscan University. Printers used to print several pages on large sheets of paper, fold them, and bind them together. It was up to the reader to cut the folded pages apart in order to read the book. So these uncut books by Mivart have clearly never been read.

These four pages are joined at the top and a little bit on the upper right side.

While I love the nostalgic flavor of such old books, I despise cutting them because I am a terrible perfectionist and it’s extremely difficult or else impossible to cut the pages perfectly. In fact, the paper has become brittle from age, so it’s easier to tear the pages while trying to slice them. After slicing many pages from Mivart, however, I am starting to get into a groove.

I’ve had the best luck with a sharp paring knife I found in the Aquinas Institute kitchenette. A dull knife will do more tearing than slicing. Moreover, if you know what you are doing then a sharp knife is actually safer because you end up using less force. (Still, be careful when starting out that you don’t slice your fingers.) Do not use a serrated knife (e.g. a steak knife or bread knife). It’s also best if the blade is long enough to keep the handle out of the book, since the pages slice best when the crease is mostly folded flat.

Among these four pages are two creases; only cut one crease at a time.

Here’s my advice for slicing uncut pages. It’s typical for four pages to be folded together, one pair within another. Only cut one pair at a time, because if your knife has to slice through two sheets at once, it’s likely to tear something. In most cases you will be cutting on the top, but sometimes the pages are also joined on the right side. Do the right side first, starting from the bottom and moving to the top, and then do the top from right to left.

Keep your knife at an acute angle to the edge of the page (not a right angle) and apply only enough force to slice the seam. Gently saw it open with slow, continual slices, pushing not just perpendicular along the fold (i.e. left) but also a little bit outward, away from the book (i.e. up), so that it rubs well against the fold.

Don’t worry, the bandage is just a papercut from a sweet potato pie box on Christmas.

Sometimes the knife may appear to be slicing correctly on front, but is actually tearing the back of the page. To avoid this, I lift the page slightly and press around the knife with my off-hand fingers. This helps to keep the knife in the fold of the pages and to ensure that it is cutting at the fold. At the same time, the fingers have to be securely above and below the blade, not in front of it, so that you don’t cut yourself.

Lastly, do not ever expect a cut book to be perfect. If you manage to cut every single page without a tear, then I will be in awe. In my experience, there will always be mistakes. Start at the back until you get the hang of it, so at least your worst mistakes won’t be in the very front.

Now that I’m done, here’s a tidbit from Mivart’s book:

Moreover, the rights of subjects are no less divine than those of their rulers. The Church has taught, and in no ambiguous fashion … that the sovereign power exists for the good of subjects, and that the ruler (man or assembly) forfeits all right to sovereignty by complete desertion of the duties incumbent on sovereignty.

Mivart, Essays and Criticisms, 1:377.

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