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or other suitable material fixed along one edge as a means of storing and retrieving written or printed text, which superseded the scroll as the main form of the book in the last centuries of Mediterranean Antiquity.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technicism of this discussion, in particular returning us to a fundamental question: whether the book has not been superseded by other print media, and this on strictly aesthetic terms concerning the understanding and realization of its material characteristics and their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.
These contemporary assessments of Mallarmé were indeed correct, as an extensive historical analysis of his significance in print culture around 1900 has recently shown.footnote5 However, in this context what is interesting is not only that this point of reference was already evident to contemporaries, but also how it featured in the theories of the book that were developed after him. Valéry saw in Mallarmé’s typographic ‘arrangement’ a programmatic integration of two aesthetic modes: a totalizing perception of broad surfaces and a gradual process of reading lines. In his view, Mallarmé succeeded, by means of the material composition of the page, in expanding the domain of literature by integrating a second dimension and consequently also a second mode of perception. With Mallarmé, literature (understood as typographic arrangement) is finally aware that it is not just a line, but also a surface—and as a material surface, open to intuitive momentary perception.
Mallarmé and Valéry agree that there are two fundamental modes of perception for book-format literature. However, they appear to differ over whether the two can be activated in concert. The perception of the typographical page as Mallarmé conceived of it can be characterized as a ‘material intuition’ that grasps the page in a moment, at a glance, preceding the linear reading process while at the same time englobing it. The intuitive ‘coup d’œil’ of surface perception, in this sense, anticipates the later comprehension of the linear reading process.footnote6 Valéry, in contrast, does not believe that such a dual operation is possible. For him, ‘seeing’ texts and ‘reading’ them are not only independent of each other as modes, they are mutually exclusive. The simultaneous, stationary and intuitive ‘seeing’ of texts, which he likens to the spatial perception of buildings, is to be contrasted with a consecutive, mobile and intellectual ‘reading’ of texts, which he likens to the temporal perception of music. Nevertheless, Valéry suggests that ease of transition between these two aesthetic modes represents a central criterion of value for book-format literature. From his point of view, it is not sufficient for pages of the book, as material artefacts, to be viewed on the one hand as beautiful typographical surfaces and on the other hand as readable typeset lines; instead, the arrangement must favour the user’s easy transition from one aesthetic mode to the other (and back). A book as a material collection of typographical pages is suitable and ‘virtuous’ only if it permits its user to acknowledge both fundamental dimensions of book-format literature, if not in a single act of perceiving, then at least in the course of an extended process of reception through multiple ‘passages’.