Silverman, Willa. The New Bibliopolis: French Book Collectors and the Culture of Print, 1880-1914.
In recent years there has been an increasing amount of scholarship on the history of the book in France, with the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gaining ground in a field long rich in research on the Renaissance and the Enlightenment book worlds. Willa Silverman's The New Bibliopolis: French Book Collectors and the Culture of Print, 1880-1914, is the newest addition to this corpus of "books about books" exploring the importance of the book-object in the cultural and literary history of France. Focusing on the "new culture of book collecting" (5) emerging between the first years of the Third Republic and the First World War, the author fuses two book historical methodologies with the aim "to bridge a gap between an Anglo-American approach to book history, which bas often relied on analytical bibliography, and the grounding in social and cultural history more typical of an histoire du livre associated with France" (11). This dual approach gives the work an appealing interdisciplinary character and enables it to think concurrently about material innovations to the book and the social and cultural structures that influence them.
Silverman begins her lively study of fin-de-siecle book love by distinguishing between two generations of bibliophiles: the "Ancients," associated with the Societe des Bibliophiles Francois, and the "Moderns," the new generation emerging in the last decades of the nineteenth century with aspirations to modernize book love. To emphasize this distinction, the author juxtaposes two book sales that epitomize the difference: the 1869 sale of the library of Baron Jerome-Frederic Pichon, longtime president of the Bibliophiles Francois, and the 1894 auctioning of the collection of Octave Uzanne, the "high priest of fin-de-siecle bibliophilia" (14) who figures prominently in Silverman's study. Separated by a quarter-century, these book sales are representative of the two moments in the history of bibliophilia whose contrast is central to The New Bibliopolis: the first marked by its retrospective penchant, the second by "a forward-looking method in which individual amateurs played a vital role in crafting volumes designated in advance as collectible" (5). Departing from this distinction, Silverman reflects upon the significance of modern book love and links its transformations to evolutions in bookmaking technology, tensions between popular and dite culture, the rise of the bourgeoisie, the l'art pour l'art ideology and the culture of collecting. In this way, the work moves beyond conjuring up a distant bibliophilic universe and affirms the importance of the book--both as object and idea--in nineteenth-century French culture.
The chapters range from explorations of central figures of fin-de-siecle book culture such as Octave Uzanne and Robert de Montesquiou, to broader reflections on bibliophile societies, illustrated books and the gendering of book appreciation, among others. In "Books Worthy of Our Era? Octave Uzanne, Technology and the Luxury Book" the author considers how new bookmaking technologies not only posed a threat to the quality of books, but were also embraced for the creation of new livres de luxe. Octave Uzanne--the bibliophile who Silverman splendidly revives in this work--rejected the schism between industry and luxury and embraced, "superficially at least" (21), technology to realize his bibliophilic dreams. The second chapter, "Ancients against Moderns: Bibliophilia at the Fin de Siecle," revisits the distinction between the bibliophilic old-guard who looked to the past in search of treasures and the innovators with both the ambition and the means to create their own beautiful books. These "Moderns" sought to give a fashionable face to bibliophilia, an activity long associated with the image of "a very old monsieur, scrawny, dry as a mummy, ill-dressed, wearing glasses, and living peevishly in his old-book den like a wolf in its lair" (67). "Everything to the Moderns: Independent and Contemporary Bibliophiles," the third chapter, looks more closely at the bibliophile societies emerging after 1870 (Les Amis des livres, Les Cent Bibliophiles, Les xx, among others) who embraced "newness" as a means to define themselves within the sphere of book production. In the fourth chapter, Silverman examines the relationship between artist and amateur in fin-de-siecle illustrated books by studying the cases of publishers Paul Gallimard, Eugene Rodrigues, Pierre Dauze and Octave Uzanne, and artists August Rodin, Lucien Pissarro, Georges de Feure and Felix Vallotton. In her fifth chapter on Robert de Montesquiou, the author reflects upon the constitution and function of the private library of this collector, aesthete and "'venerator' of livres de luxe" (140) who "read, wrote, and coveted books to satisfy his cravings for beautiful objects" (164). The final chapter, "Women and the Bibliophilic Imagination,' is a consideration of the place of women in the "international bibliophile fraternity" (167) that provides refreshing and provocative analysis of this dimension of the bibliopolis. Looking more closely at the how women were both associated with books ("woman as book" ) and deemed enemies to books ("woman versus book" ), Silverman draws the readers attention to tensions inherent to this double characterization noting that the "exclusionary discourse elaborated by this brotherhood of bookmen coexisted with another one that, paradoxically, designated the material book not as inimical to women but in fact as women themselves, to the extent that both were perceived as objects of physical desire and possession, even as fetishes" (167).
The New Bibliopolis is more than a history of bibliophilia and raises larger questions about the cultural value of the book in the nineteenth century, the emergence of new modes of relating to books and their evolving signification in post-revolutionary France. In the ever-growing field of "books-about-books," Willa Silverman's study is not only a "book about fine books and those who love them" (xv) but a fascinating look back to a moment of fundamental transformation in the nineteenth century book world that will inspire its readers to think more critically about the current evolutions in the book industry.
Ainsley Brown, Princeton University.
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|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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