Has the book died at last? In recent years, literary and cultural critics have often debated the crisis of the codex as a cultural form: the bundle of sheets of paper or other suitable material fixed along one edge as a means of storing and retrieving written or printed text, which superseded the scroll as the main form of the book in the last centuries of Mediterranean Antiquity. The main question in this debate has been whether the physical book will soon be replaced by digital media, put out of circulation by its electronic counterparts. However, a pan-European retrospect of theories of the book in the interwar period shows up the narrow technicism of this discussion, in particular returning us to a fundamental question: whether the book has not been superseded by other print media, and this on strictly aesthetic terms concerning the understanding and realization of its material characteristics and their possibilities.

The greater critical scope of this earlier debate was favoured by the cosmopolitan character of its principal contributors, who included Paul Valéry, Walter Benjamin, László Moholy-Nagy and El Lissitsky, their collective working range which extended from the literary arts of poetry and the essay to painting, photography and printing; and not least by the variety of cultural sites and contexts in which their arguments found their occasions. For at this date, theoretical discourse on the book was homeless, in disciplinary and institutional terms, and its initiatives were essayistic in character, appearing in feuilletons and in the cultural-critical asides of writers; in the specialized trade publications of typographers and graphic designers; in productions from bibliophile milieux and catalogues from the antiquarian book market.

Valéry’s essay ‘Les deux vertus d’un livre’ first appeared in 1926, as part of a set of eleven small-format booklets issued by the Dutch publisher Alexandre Alphonse Marius Stols and dealing with the status of the literary book.footnote1 This slipcase collection was published as Les Livrets du bibliophile in 350 copies and sold only in whole sets. In addition to short tales dealing with the topic of bibliophilia, it included theoretical contributions on the book by notable French authors including Paul Claudel, Anatole France and Valery Larbaud. The main contention of this densely written essay is that the study of literature must now also turn its attention to the nature of literature as a visible physical object.footnote2 He is particularly interested in the material aspects of the book page: if that were to be viewed as an image, so he argues, it would be possible to gain a full impression of it. Above and beyond the established mode of reading the page in a successive, step-by-step manner, it now seems possible to apprehend the page in an immediate and simultaneous way, as an image. Thus, the ‘beautiful book’ displays two virtues: on the one hand, it is a perfect machine for the linear reading mode; on the other, it is an object ideally designed for synoptic perception.

Valéry had already described this relation between the simultaneity of the gaze and successive reading (modelled on the pattern of speech) a few years earlier, in his influential reflections on Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés. At that point, however, he had not described it as a feature of the book in general, but rather as a specific aspect of Mallarmé’s poetic project.footnote3 Valéry locates him very precisely in the history of literary media: he ultimately identifies the innovation of Un coup de dés as lying in its general consideration of the page as a visual unit—understood in this instance as the visual characteristics of the opened book or booklet, the double-page spread. And his claim is that this consideration stems from the poet’s careful study of the printed image in contemporary posters and newspapers.

Valéry was not the only one to have dwelt on this widely underestimated connection in media history. Thirty years earlier, in his role as the Paris correspondent for the Journal de Bruxelles, the Belgian Symbolist poet Georges Rodenbach had already noted (to his surprise) that his friend Mallarmé, in his personal correspondence, was fond of discussing his favourite posters and how, with their typographical diversity, these might serve as a model for the printing of poetry books. A book typography modelled on that of the poster could act, so Mallarmé hoped, like a printed pattern of intonation to provide greater nuance for the representation of the poetic process. Paul Claudel, in his Philosophie du livre—which also appeared in Stols’s slipcase set—developed the idea that the literary book now had to be viewed as part of a complex network of media. He identified the daily newspaper, the magazine and the book, within which he further distinguished between books for pleasure and those for work, and luxury books.footnote4 He also argued that Un coup de dés should be understood as a poetic reflexion on this diversified media network. According to Claudel, Mallarmé’s abstract visual poem could not properly be understood without acknowledgement of his admiration for the layout of certain posters and the front pages of newspapers.