- The Death of the Book: Modernist Novels and the Time of Reading by John Lurz
Midway through The Death of the Book, his new study of how modernist novels draw attention to their own printed materials, John Lurz considers the cover of his battered paperback "Gabler edition" of Ulysses: "Superimposed over the last S is a pair of green spectacles that transforms [End Page 605] the horizontal serpentine shape into a vague approximation of a mustache, above which is the drawing of a hat that transforms the type composing the novel's title into a body" (55). The image of the letters of James Joyce's title merging into a human form—perhaps that of Leopold Bloom, more likely that of Joyce himself—nicely encapsulates the kind of intertwining of books and bodies that is Lurz's focus. Examining the dynamic that exists between the "embodied readerly subject and the physical object of the book" (1), Lurz argues that when novels by Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf draw attention to their own pages, they are really marking the passing of time. The works that he examines, as he puts it, "combine a pointed awareness of their material aspects with a deep concern for temporality, [imagining] a specific phenomenology of the book that tracks the inexorable passing of time in which literary experience necessarily unfolds" (11).
No wonder, then, that the cover of The Death of the Book prints its title upside down. Rather than examine the book's supposed murder at the hands of new media, Lurz uses the title phrase to describe "the sense of finitude and temporal passing" that major modernist novels convey by making reference to their own materials (11). Reading, like all other parts of life, is an action that takes place in time—as the reader flips sequentially through a book's pages so too do her mortal moments tick away, until both reading and life come to an end. So, according to Lurz, when Clarissa Dalloway stares at the copy of Cymbeline in Hatchard's shop window, it is only natural that she should think of death. Not only do the lines "Fear no more the heat o' the sun / Nor the furious winter's rages" make Clarissa aware of "the finite, material world of objects" and the "inescapable march of time," but "the open spread of the book offers [her] a sense of temporal forbearance, not exactly a consolation but a measured recognition of mortal finitude" (3). Lurz, moreover, suggests that the offset printing of Shakespeare's lines within Mrs. Dalloway necessarily draws the attention of Woolf's reader to the materiality of the volume in her hands. At least for a moment, the body of the book and the body of the reader intertwine in a recognized common mortality.
Lurz is at his most convincing when he attends to moments when figurative materiality overlaps with actual print. For instance, in his first chapter, "The Books of the Recherche," Lurz discusses how Proust's narrator, for all of his idealism, "roots his fantasies of immateriality … in a physical experience of the material object of the book" (38). Linking the narrator's discovery of George Sand's François le Champi to Proust's own compositional method of pasting loose sheets onto the edges of a notebook (Proust called these his paperoles), Lurz suggests that narrator and author alike are less interested in textual narrative than in the physical sensuality of their books, and that such bookish engagements "have everything to do with time" (26). Lurz, on this basis, argues that Proust's novel "stages the literary artwork not as an aesthetic transformation or transcendence of the temporal, physical world but as both an intellectual and sensory engagement with the very limits of that world" (27, Lurz's emphasis). The reader, Lurz provocatively suggests, is also forced into a sensual engagement with worldly limits, if only through the sheer force of boredom. Wittily linking his own...