The New Bibliopolis: French Book Collectors and the Culture of Print, 1880-1914 (review)
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The New Bibliopolis: French Book Collectors and the Culture of Print, 1880–1914. By Willa Z. Silverman. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. 368 pp. $75.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-8020-9211-3.

Fin-de-siècle France is famous for its avant-garde literature and art, but the marriage of the two in the publishing of fine books has been little explored—until now. Willa Silverman's New Bibliopolis is an excellent study of the world of éditions de luxe. Often specially commissioned in limited numbers, these instant rare books were exquisitely designed, finely crafted, and beautifully illustrated for a discriminating audience. The bibliophiles were not only collectors but also producers, "important agents of cultural change" in an age of the "desacralization of print" (140, 34). [End Page 494] Most of the publishers, authors, and artists involved in the creation of these rare books are almost unknown today, especially in the Anglophone world.

While Silverman, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, effectively explicates the world of French fine books, based on her close study of archival and published materials, she does not fully explain its place and influence in a wider historical and European context. Most of the comparisons she draws are with well-known examples of British Art Nouveau publishing. She mentions, intriguingly, the surprising excellence of Russian book publishing but does not follow it up in any detail, and she ignores other centers of modernism such as Vienna and Barcelona. One hopes her diligent work will spark a more thorough look at the European American deluxe book scene during the Belle Époque. Silverman does, however, write knowledgeably of the importance of technology within the developing world of fine printing.

The use of new technology to make strikingly beautiful books is indeed a hallmark of Silverman's exposition. That conservative, even reactionary, French writers like Octave Uzanne championed new technology and artists while disdaining popular literacy and the traditional world of books is a paradox. Members of the "New Bibliopolis" wanted an "elite product" and were not interested in a "socially diverse readership" (27). Louis Dérôme, for instance, considered public libraries "tombs where books are destined for eternal rest" (73). Silverman's well-wrought pages are filled with the names of avant-garde and modernist artists such as these. (A more lengthy discussion of the relationship between fine printing and the avant-garde would, nonetheless, have been welcomed by this reader.) Many of these new luxury books were not just products of new technological processes but also examples, even exemplars, of new forms of art.

The University of Toronto Press has produced a worthy addition to its Studies in Book and Print Culture. The numerous black-and-white illustrations are inviting and make one wish for an even larger selection of pictures showing the bindings, typography, and bibliophiles themselves. The volume is a valuable contribution to stand beside the works of James Smith Allen and Martyn Lyons, not to mention the massive four volumes of the Histoire de l'édition française.

Students who enjoy discursive footnotes will appreciate Silverman's substantive notes (although some are merely unremarkable transcriptions of the original French). One would have liked more statistical evidence of the rise and development of the new printing, for which one must go back to the Histoire de l'édition française. Some of the grand wit and presence of personages like Robert de Montesquiou and Joris-Karl Huysmans is lost without further reference to the existing literature on French modernism. Silverman relies heavily on Uzanne's published and unpublished work but gives little indication of how influential he or Montesquiou actually were.

The New Bibliopolis will be of great interest not just to rare book enthusiasts but also to anyone interested in French culture and modern publishing. Silverman shows a firm grasp of the mercurial world of small presses and that of literary magazines and those who produced and distributed them. While many of her actors are obscure, they were part of the seething ferment underlying the late-nineteenth-century thought and the significant players who contributed to the creation of the contemporary fine book. [End Page 495...