'The New Bibliopolis,' by Willa Silverman, reviewed

book cover of “the new bibliopolis”

From the papyrus scrolls of ancient Egypt to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to the mid-fifteenth century invention of the printing press, people have long endeavored to improve book production techniques and make text more portable, durable and affordable.

In the 19th century, the invention of steam paper mills and steam printing presses caused an explosion in the number of books available to the public, along with plummeting prices. The industrialization and "democratizing potential" of new book production technologies was not embraced by everyone, explains Willa Silverman in her most recent book, The New Bibliopolis: French Book Collectors and the Culture of Print 1880-1914 (University of Toronto Press).

In her thorough and readable study of French bibliophiles and book collecting from the early Third Republic to the onset of the First World War, Silverman explores an era in which "Bohemian gentlemen" of the upper-bourgeoisie in France created "a cult-like veneration" of beaux livres or livres de luxe, defined as high quality, expensive illustrated books, "distinguished by their luxurious material quality."

These elite collectors shared an equal distaste for the quantity and quality of books produced for a rapidly expanding reading public that was becoming "more literate and socially diverse." Silverman quotes the reaction of Octave Uzzane—"the high-priest of fin-de-siècle bibiliophilia"—to the educational reforms of the era. Instruction, said Uzzane, is "given to everyone, everywhere... without distinction made among levels of class or wealth," and everyone is now reading, "from the milkmaid selling her milk in the morning…to the duchess on her chaise lounge." "As mass-reproduced commodities," notes Silverman, "books were now being severed from a long tradition that had endowed the printed word with prestige."

Writes Silverman, "Materialism provided one motivation for collecting, but collecting also expressed the social aspirations of some members of the upper bourgeoisie at the fin de siècle," at a time when the French aristocracy "had lost much of its political power but none of its cachet."

Ironically, despite the bibliophiles' discomfort with books produced for the masses, the impact of their insistence on preserving and expanding the artistry of bookmaking has had a positive impact on mainstream book publishing, including in our time.

Drawing on extensive original research, Silverman argues eloquently that the reverence of these passionate book collectors for books as unique "objets d'art"—art objects, rather than mass-produced consumer goods—supported the continuation of a vibrant print culture and aesthetic values in book production. Silverman's work is an appealing history of the quirky bibliophiles whose passions, in many ways, define French culture at the turn of the century.

Willa Z. Silverman, Ph.D., is professor of French and Jewish Studies in the College of the Liberal Arts; wzs1@psu.edu.

Last Updated August 18, 2008