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The Deckle Edge: Affectation or Style?

May 23, 2007

I recently ran across this post on one of Amazon’s Customer Discussions forums:

DemonsDanceAlone writes: "Both my mother and I received [Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris] as a Christmas gift, and I was quite disappointed to find that the edge of the book was not smooth, but an uneven zigzag shape. When I went to return it, hoping for a better copy, I found that all the books at my local Target and Barnes and Noble had the same uneven edges. Is this a flaw in the book's production, is it just a bad batch, or is this a new style that this publisher is using for some stupid reason?"

This post brought two questions to my mind: One, who in the heck gives Hannibal Rising as a Christmas gift?! (Cannibalism and candy canes—hmmm.) And two, what is up with those cool irregular edges?

After a bit of Googling, I discovered that rough, untrimmed page edges are called "deckle edges" or just simply "rough trimmed." A deckle is a wood frame resting on or hinged to the edges of the mold that defines the edges of the sheet in handmade paper process. According to history.com, the rough edges are created by the fibrous pulp flowing between the frame and the deckle of the mold. When books were predominantly composed of handmade paper, deckle edges were considered a defect and were trimmed off. In the late 1800s, however, rough trimmed pages became fashionable. During this time, many books were left untrimmed on one or three sides for purely aesthetic reasons.

The industrialization of printing and the commercial manufacture of paper has sidelined naturally deckled handmade paper to the hobbyist, artist, and neo-Luddite. Modern sheets are machine made, mass-produced, and precisely trimmed ("cut solid") to pre-determined sizes for letters, magazines, forms, catalogs, laser printer, copying machine output, and, yes, books.

Like the pre-faded and frayed jeans on display at Diesel; the faux crackle, hiss, and skipping of vinyl records on hip hop tracks; or the peeling dingy white paint of shabby chic furniture—it seems what’s old is new again. Today’s deckle edges are artificially created to give a book a more historical or sophisticated look. Examples include the aforementioned Hannibal Rising, as well as Nelly Rosario's Song of the Water Saints, John Le Carre's The Tailor of Panama, and Lemony Snicket's The Hostile Hospital.

Affectation? DemonsDanceAlone thinks so, but I don’t. Rough trimmed pages are just another way to let a book’s packaging communicate a mood and hopefully entice—not confound—readers.

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