The Paper Knife – Part II

Book lovers abound and, fortunately, so do books.

In days gone by, you would probably have to have had a paper knife close at hand in order to read every single page of your book. Books printed cheaply often did not have their deckle edge opened. It was up to you, the reader, to cut it. The Economist has a pretty good article on the deckle edge. I have provided the link here mainly because I like the engraving reproduced at the head of the article.

I no longer have the stack of French books whose unopened deckle edges I cut with studious alacrity using a bent wavy-edged copper paper knife, until I realised the blade from a Stanley® knife did a much better job. I have, however, one similar book I am currently borrowing, pictured here:

The deckle edge is the one on the right hand side, where we normally open the book to read it. This book was published in Lisbon in 1959 – not so long ago.

I am glad that the pages had already been cut, since the book is all but falling apart, and so I read it as if its contents are prohibitively salacious: the book is only half-open, and I am somewhat nervous, lest anyone look over my shoulder.

Notice, if you can,how the sections have been stitched together before the spine was glued on. Also pictured here, a paper knife next to its black leather sheath.

As already intimated, finding the correct paper knife was often a process fraught with frustration. The ideal blend of ornamentation and practicality was certainly a consideration. But, as is so often the case – witness “designer” teapots – the really good-looking items frequently do not do the job.

Pictured above is a letter opener which also does an excellent job as a paper knife, cutting pages. Promotional and business gifts branched out into a range of letter openers when some bright spark realised that most business people already had more ballpoint pens than anyone could be expected to use in a lifetime. This one hails from the mysterious-sounding “Anglo-Soviet Shipping Co Limited. It is not so mysterious, really: people forget that Russia (USSR) was Britain’s ally in the Second World War, and not many people know, but I shall tell you now that my partner worked as a foreign credit controller for a major German freight company before she got ill. These are the two main reasons why we have the best paper knife I have ever come across in our possession.

If she receives a letter in the post, something which is rare these days, I go through the ritual of taking her the paper knife, and much is made of the opening of the envelope. Just as tearing paper gives satisfaction, so does slicing open an envelope.

HRH Queen Elizabeth II is the holder of a paper knife.  There was a very good BBC documentary about the Queen and what her job entails about a generation ago. In one lovely scene, the Queen was reading through the names on the forthcoming honours list. The camera was quick enough to capture her going through the motions of touching each of the shoulders of the soon-to-be beknighted one in miniature. She tapped the surface of her roll-top desk with her paper knife first to the right and then to the left, completely unaware that she was doing so.

The roll-top opens to reveal little shelves and drawers at the back which normally contain writing paraphernalia. The desk surface is often extendable. It is an ideal home for a paper knife.

My mother always fancied a roll-top desk. Finally, she acquired one by winning a prize in a sponsored golf competition. Her prize was a telephone table. The person who won the telephone table joked that my mother had won her prize. My mother told her that she had already won a telephone table just like the most recently acquired one in the same sponsored competition several years ago. The two agreed to swap prizes, and my mother got her long wished-for roll-top desk..The moral of the story, of course, is that golfing has its advantages.

I had to tell you that story to explain the long slim pine box in the first two photographs. It is a replica of the one made by my partner, and inlaid by me with a thin piece of foam rubber covered both sides with burgundy velveteen. Actually, the box pictured is the dud. My mother got a better-crafted one with no traces of panel pins or wood glue. This was the presentation box for my mother’s 60th birthday present from us: a polished brass paper knife with a cylindrical ivory handle intricately carved with a row of elephants in procession on both sides. There were two such items in the shop, slightly different from each other because they were handmade. It took us ages to decide which one was the right one, but we managed in the end after several minor, yet fleeting, nervous breakdowns each.

She was surprised and delighted with the item itself, and the presentation, and it soon took its place in her roll-top desk. But not before she mimicked the actions of HRH Elizabeth II. I have a feeling she does this with regularity to this day, some thirteen years later.

I doubt that the local library she frequents in Australia stocks books with as yet unopened pages, but I rather suspect that she too, gets a feeling of mild satisfaction from cutting open an envelope. Perhaps I should pop a letter in the post in addition to her weekly e-mail, just so that she has an excuse to use her paper knife?


Bookmark which doubles up as a paper knife, pictured here against the background of the open pages of my bilingual French-English dictionary. The hooked end fits over the back of the spine of most books.

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