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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Athenæum   1 January 1867

Down, Bromley, Kent

Jan. 1, 1867.

I was glad to see in your paper of the 15th ult. that you have allowed “A Great Reader” to protest against books being sold uncut.1 He is obliged to own that many persons like to read and cut the pages at the same time; but, on the other hand, many more like to turn rapidly over the pages of a new book so as to get some notion of its contents and see its illustrations, if thus ornamented. But “A Great Reader” does not notice three valid objections against uncut books. In the first place they sometimes get torn or badly cut, as may be seen with many books in Mudie’s Library;2 and I know a lady who is habitually guilty of cutting books with her thumb. Secondly, and which is much more important, dust accumulates on the rough edges, and gradually works in between the leaves, as the books vibrate on their shelves. Thirdly, and most important of all, for those who not merely read but have to study books, is the slowness in finding by the aid of the index any lost passage, especially in works of reference.3 Who could tolerate a dictionary with rough edges? I have had Loudon’s ‘Encyclopædia of Plants’ and Lindley’s ‘Vegetable Kingdom’ in constant use during many years,4 and the cloth binding is still so good that it would have been a useless expense to have had them bound in leather; nor did I forsee that I should have consulted them so often, otherwise the saving of time in finding passages would have amply repaid the cost of binding. The North Americans have set us the example of cutting and often gilding the edges.5 What can be the reason that the same plan is not followed here? Is it mere Toryism?6 Every new proposal is sure to be met by many silly objections. Let it be remembered that a deputation of paper-manufacturers waited on Sir R. Peel, when he proposed to establish the penny postage, urging that they would suffer great loss, as all persons would write on notepaper instead of on letter sheets!7 It is always easy to suggest fanciful difficulties. An eminent publisher remarked to me that booksellers would object to receiving books cut, as customers would come into their shops and read them over the counter; but surely a book worth reading could not be devoured in this hasty manner.8 The sellers of old books seem never to object to any one studying the books on their stalls as long as he pleases. “A Discursive” remarks in your paper that booksellers would object to books being supplied to them with their edges cut, as they would thus “relinquish an obvious advantage in palpable evidence of newness.”9 But why should this objection be more valid here than in America? Publishers might soon ascertain the wishes of the public if they would supply to the same shop cut and uncut copies, or if they would advertise that copies in either state might be procured, for booksellers would immediately observe which were taken in preference from their counters. I hope that you will support this movement, and earn the gratitude of all those who hate the trouble and loss of time in cutting their books, who lose their paper-cutters, who like to take a hasty glance through a new volume, who dislike to see the edges of the pages deeply stained with dust, and who have the labour of searching for lost passages. You will not only earn the gratitude of many readers, but in not a few cases that of their children, who have to cut through dry and pictureless books for the benefit of their elders.

Charles Darwin.


Most books and periodicals in Britain were sold with uncut pages. A letter to the Athenæum, 15 December 1866, p. 803, signed by ‘A Great Reader’, asked for the ‘opinion of the literary world’ as to whether a ‘period of civilization’ had not arrived ‘when the readers of books and periodicals might reasonably ask that they should be delivered from the publishers ready cut’. CD told Joseph Dalton Hooker that he had then, ‘like an ass’, sent a long letter to the Athenæum urging publishers to cut the pages (see Correspondence vol. 14, letter to J. D. Hooker, 28 [December 1866] and n. 6). For Hooker’s response and his criticism of British publishers as ‘Penny-wise Pound foolish, Penurious, Pragmatical Prigs’, see the letter from J. D. Hooker, [29 December 1866].
CD refers to Mudie’s Select Library of New Oxford Street, London, a subscription lending library. For the Darwin family’s use of Mudie’s as a source of books, see Browne 2002.
CD noted this last problem when urging his publisher, John Murray, to have the pages of the fourth edition of Origin cut (see Correspondence vol. 14, letter to John Murray, 15 July [1866]).
There is an annotated copy of John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopædia of plants (Loudon 1841) in the Darwin Library–CUL (Marginalia 1: 504–6). A copy of John Lindley’s Vegetable kingdom (Lindley 1853) is listed in CD’s Library catalogue (DAR 240), but it has not been found in the Darwin Library–Down or the Darwin Library–CUL.
Beginning in the 1850s, North American publications had their pages trimmed after binding (see Tebbel 1972, pp. 260–1). CD had earlier written to Thomas Henry Huxley concerning the Natural History Review, ‘Do inaugurate a great improvement, & have pages cut, like the Yankees do’ (Correspondence vol. 11, letter to T. H. Huxley, 10 [January 1863]). See also Correspondence vol. 13, letter to Charles Lyell, 21 February [1865].
CD’s reference is to the association of the Conservative, or Tory, party with opposition to change or reform.
Stationers objected to the establishment of the penny postage in 1839, allegedly because they feared that government issue of franked envelopes would affect their sales; however, this deputation protested to the Whig administration preceding Robert Peel’s Tory administration (see Hill 1880, 1: 348). Peel was not prime minister until 1841, but when various other protests were raised against the penny postage in 1842, he refused to abandon it (ibid., p. 449). See also Fryer and Akerman eds. 2000, 2: 715–16, 759–60.
CD refers to a comment made by his publisher, Murray, in his letter of 18 July [1866] (Correspondence vol. 14).
Another reply to the letter in the Athenæum of 15 December (see n. 1, above) was signed ‘A Discursive’; the author suggested that only the lateral edges be cut, leaving the top edges uncut (see Athenæum, 22 December 1866, p. 848).


Browne, Janet. 2002. Charles Darwin. The power of place. Volume II of a biography. London: Pimlico.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Hill, George Birkbeck. 1880. The life of Sir Rowland Hill and the history of penny postage. 2 vols. London: Thomas de la Rue & Co.

Lindley, John. 1853. The vegetable kingdom; or, the structure, classification, and uses of plants, illustrated upon the natural system. 3d edition with corrections and additional genera. London: Bradbury & Evans.

Loudon, John Claudius. 1841. An encyclopædia of plants. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans.

Marginalia: Charles Darwin’s marginalia. Edited by Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of Nicholas W. Gill. Vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishing. 1990.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Tebbel, John. 1972. A history of book publishing in the United States. Vol. 1, The creation of an industry, 1630–1865. New York and London: R. R. Bowker.


Expresses his support for new books being sold with the pages cut.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Athenæum, 5 January 1867, pp. 18–19

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5343F,” accessed on 16 September 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 15