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Some like them uncut

Unopened edition of Chen Zishan's Sketches (2007).

The Chinese term 毛边本 (literally, "fuzzy-edged volume") refers both to uncut volumes with deckle edges, and to unopened books, in which the pages have to be sliced open by the reader. They're not especially common, and for most readers who still enjoy reading dead trees once in a while, having to slice open every other page is just another hassle.

For collectors, it's a different story. Hu Tong, the proprietor of Booyee Bookshop near Beijing's Panjiayuan Market, wrote in the Mirror last week about the popularity of uncut editions of recent books.

"New uncut editions" are increasingly popular

by Hu Tong

"Uncut editions" have been very popular recently; whether they be Republican-era or new works from recent years, they have been welcomed by collectors. Even articles about "uncut editions" number substantially higher than in years past. I am not a student of editions, nor am I a collector, so I can only write about them from the perspective of a bookseller.

So-called "uncut editions" (毛边本) refers to special books whose top and outer margins are not sliced by the publisher during printing and binding. Reading an uncut edition is a slow process that requires slicing open each page with a knife. People who enjoy this find it very interesting. Those worried about the hassle slice open a number of pages at once and then read them, to avoid holding a knife while they read (of course, there are those who use a stiff piece of paper, like a business card, and reportedly the result is also quite good). There are even lazier people, or collectors who focus on collecting uncut editions, who don't even read the books, or else they buy another "common edition" to read and save themselves the trouble.

I've not studied the history of uncut editions; I only know that Lu Xun was in the "uncut party," and I've seen lots of his works on the market that were in uncut editions. Since this book must be specially reserved, numbers are never high (at their highest they don't exceed 100 copies), so they are prized by many collectors. Prices are pushed ever higher by the rising number of collectors and the increasing depth of their ardor; an uncut, Republican-era edition of a Lu Xun work is several hundred yuan or more, but collectors still chase after them.

There are not that many uncut editions of Republican New Literature, and because of the many movements after the founding of New China, the majority have been turned to dust. The few that circulate in the marketplace cannot satisfy the demands of collectors. Collectors have thus turned their enthusiasm to searching for "new uncut editions."

I do not know when new uncut editions first appeared - it seems that in the 1980s there were a few famous new uncut editions, like the second printing of Hui An on Books, or Essays on Editions of Lu Xun's Works. These two books were associated with Tang Tao; he wrote the first and he was one of the major contributors to the second. He was a noted collector himself and had a good number of uncut editions in his possession. Although he was not the first pioneer after the Cultural Revolution, he was a strong force behind it.

Unopened edition of Talks on Scholarship.
After this, noted painters and calligraphers liked to call up their publishers when their books came out, asking for a few uncut copies to give to people. Shanghai's Chen Zishan has an uncut edition made every time that he sents to friends with a hand-written serial number. The other day I received from him uncut editions of Enroute to Exploring the Unknown and Sketches; he made few copies: 30 of the former and 100 of the latter.

Booyee Bookshop began selling new uncut editions beginning with Fangcao Di, edited and printed by Chaoyang Cultural Center. Editor Tan Zongyuan gave me a few copies of each issue, and later I also sold books like Nostalgia that he edited; these were also uncut editions. At that time, it only took a few days to sell around ten copies.

In 2005, collector Xie Qizhang published Covers, and I obtained 20 copies of the uncut edition, which completely vanished in two or three days. The uncut edition of Gu Lin's Answers to a Guest's Questions sold about as quickly as Covers, and Wang Shixiang's A Third Pile of Brocade and Ash sold in a few days. This situation changed all at once after the publication of the "Book Chat" series in early 2006 [three books drawn from the 闲闲书话 forum on Tianya]. In just one day, dozens of sets were ordered. From then on, uncut editions were very popular at Booyee Bookshop. Nearly one hundred copies of the uncut edition of the revived Collector sold out in under a day. Uncut editions of Huang Miaozi's Record of Colleagues in the Arts and the first issue of the revived China Books edition of Talks on Scholarship sold out in just a few hours. Particularly when each individual was limited to just one copy, you can't say that things weren't "hot."

Of course, many people criticize the current uncut editions, saying they are just "edged editions" (留边本), meaning that they are insufficiently regular, the "fuzz" is not done carefully. Many books even have "fuzz" on the base, so there's no way to stack them on a shelf. Fortunately many people won't cut open the pages to read, so it doesn't really matter.

In the April issue of the literary journal Book Town, East China Normal University professor Chen Zishan also wrote about the joys of uncut books. A Booyee forums commenter called Zihu complained that when people write about uncut books, they tend to say the same old stuff:

Chen Zishan is one of the most industrious men of the south, almost a Lenin, and I can't count the number of things he's written. His greatest virtue is that he never publicizes all of the stuff he does, while for other comrades, the clamor they make over one thing is enough for ten. Remember to "know shame" in Zishan's presence. On a rainy night I read Zishan's new work, "Starting from Wu Qimin's 'Uncut Books'," and I heard for the first time that uncut books have this function: "You cut to the point you read to, so you can check whether you've finished reading" (Wu Qimin). So this was the function - it was just that no one realized it. When I read My Nom de Plume I actually unconsciously used this method. I've heard uncut, uncut, Lu Xun and Tang Tao a hundred times, and I really can't take it anymore. Whenever anyone mentions Lu and Tang when they bring up uncut books, I don't read any further. What a pity, then, that Zishan ultimately mentions and expresses his support for Tang's side. I truly feel sorry for the conclusion of this fine article.

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Comments on Some like them uncut

In the past, uncut books were also popular in the US. I have a set of The Harvard Classics printed on wonderfully thick paper which required patient slicing. The pleasant fragrance emitted as pages are sliced open adds to the joy of each volume.

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