- "A New Form of the Book"Modernism's Textual Culture and the Microform Moment
Imagine two objects in a museum of early twentieth-century media. The first is a book made of metal, its fifteen thin tin leaves measuring a little under ten inches square. The leaves turn along a cylindrical spine; even more noticeable than the jarring colors of its lithography are the words that travel across the pages, expanding and shrinking and sometimes spiraling as if out of control. This unusual book, insistent upon its material embodiment, stands as a monument to the sensuality and tactility of its medium. The second object in our imaginary exhibit is a strip of paper, roughly two and a half inches wide by twenty-three and a half inches long. The text on this paper is arranged in three uniform columns, each about the width of a penny. This miniscule writing cannot be read with the naked eye. You set the paper within a device you might describe as a "complicated lorgnette."1 As you peer forward and close one eye, the text springs into view through the lens.
The first exhibit will likely be obvious to those familiar with the work of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The metal book is his Parole in libertà futuriste, tattili-termiche-olfattive (Futurist words in freedom, tactile-thermal-olfactory), produced in 1932 in collaboration with Tullio D'Albisola. You are less likely to recognize the second object: the Fiskeoscope, a reading device incorporating the principles of microphotography. In 1922, Bradley A. Fiske, a naval admiral, became the first American to patent a reading machine. Over the next two decades, publications ranging from the New York Times to the Library Journal discussed his invention. I begin with these objects because they embody two opposing visions for the modernization of the book. Marinetti's approach in Parole in libertà futuriste aligns with the dominant critical account of the book's role in literary modernism: that the modernists foregrounded the materiality of textual media, paying unprecedented attention to the ways the physical dimensions of a book (that is, of a print codex) could complement its content. His metal book, like the work of many of his contemporaries, explores the aesthetic affordances of the book. [End Page 342]
In the first decades of the twentieth century, however, proponents of microform media offered another possible future for the book. Microform is the general term for the medium of micro-scale texts—"for any information storage and communication medium containing images too small to be read with the naked eye."2 Microform includes specific formats such as microfilm (on reels) and microfiche (on cards). In the twenty-first century, of course, microform has fallen out of fashion. While its use has not disappeared, the growing wealth of digitized and online archival material makes many scholars less and less likely to turn to microfilm reels. Lacking the nostalgic appeal of similarly obsolete media such as vinyl records or Polaroid cameras, microform has tended to be the subject of either apathy or antipathy.3 As Leah Price puts it, microfilm is "now too old to be sexy but too new to be quaint."4 Perhaps for these reasons, the medium has been, in the assessment of Jonathan Auerbach and Lisa Gitelman, "neglected by cultural historians as well as cinema scholars."5
I argue in this article that microform advocates sparked a counter-current in early twentieth-century thought: the idea that reading could be made more efficient if only the reader could overcome the troublesome materiality of the text. We do not customarily list microform among the media that captured the imagination of modernist authors. In many respects, the early twentieth century was a fallow time for microform, caught between the newness of microphotography's invention in 1839 and microform's much more extensive and visible application following the second World War. Yet the period I am describing here as the "microform moment"—roughly, from 1905 to 1935—brought a key shift in the medium's use, from storing images to reproducing texts. I show that this moment, when the belief that micro-form might become a viable competitor to the...