Modern Objects

Books are things, but they’re weird things. Unlike paintings and sculptures, their materiality is not their essence, but unlike music, they are undeniably physical. It is this in-betweenness that John Lurz, in his study of Modernism, The Death of the Book, seeks to investigate. In Proust, Joyce, and Woolf, he finds an uncommon emphasis on “the reader’s body, the book’s print, its pages, and finally its binding,” and he sets out to understand what these writers are getting at by “repeatedly referring readers to the volume they are holding in their hand.”

Lurz takes Proust’s discussions of George Sand’s François le champi in his landmark novel as an attempt to root “his fantasies of immateriality precisely in a physical experience of the material object of the book.” It is not the characters or story of Sand’s novel that Proust’s narrator most remembers from his childhood encounter with the book, but rather “the way in which the covers of the binding open, the grain of a particular paper.” With Ulysses, Lurz moves from examining the presence of a book within a book to a deeper inquiry: the book’s ability to emphasize itself. He argues that Joyce “stages the act of reading as an implicit investigation of the body’s limits,” one that forces the reader (most notably in the “Sirens” chapter, where a “lack of standard syntax, conventional spelling, and seemingly normal narrative” highlight the sounds words are composed of, rather than their meaning) to vacillate “between an awareness of his bodily organs in the sensory aspects of reading and the more general awareness of his own internal readerly ego, between sensation and intellection.” In Finnegans Wake, Lurz argues, it is the “sensory perception of print” that “precedes the linguistic ordering by which we make meaning out of these signs.” Here, it is a combination of the visual impression of “dark print on white pages” and the “puns and portmanteaux” that carry the narrative that transform writing into “a specific kind of stain that is as much seen as read.”

It is in this analysis of Joyce that the animating force behind Lurz’ inquiry begins to make itself felt. “I often frame my discursions with short detours into an essayistic mode that might seem to deviate from scholarly protocol,” he warns in his introduction. It’s a good thing too — though this is an academic work, it is hardly a lifeless one. Any once-overeager English major will sympathize with the “well-nigh physical effort” that Lurz underwent in his “initial encounter” with Ulysses. And as he turns to Woolf’s early novel Jacob’s Room, Lurz charmingly discloses that his “protracted rereadings” of the book were mostly motivated by “a crush on its main character, Jacob Flanders.” Though no stranger to shiver-inducing academic formulations like “book object” and “spatiotemporal,” the love Lurz feels for his subjects lends necessary air to subjects that might otherwise come across as stuffy.

That tenderness seems to extend to Woolf herself, whom Lurz quotes liberally and artfully as he argues that Jacob’s Room and The Waves serve in turn to highlight the book’s printing (thanks to section breaks that lend the pages “the dimension of depth, an almost sculptural nature”) and its status as “an accumulation of pages” that must be considered independently rather than understood to follow one after the other.

Though various arguments are made for why the authors scrutinized here are so invested in the materiality of their novels, it isn’t until Lurz presents a sublime passage of Woolf’s from Jacob’s Room — “a late night discussion” between Jacob and his friend Simeon at Cambridge — that the inquiry begins to settle on an answer. As the character’s words are “canceled” by the banging of a pipe, the narrator opines:

“…the words were inaudible. It was the intimacy, a sort of spiritual suppleness, when mind prints upon mind indelibly.”

Beyond an allusion to the difference between printing from woodcuts and from lead type (what Lurz styles as a transformation “from a kind of penetration into a kind of interaction”), Woolf’s “spiritual suppleness” masterfully articulates the ineffable force that Proust chases throughout his work and that Joyce seeks to sensuously elicit in his. And it is here where Lurz’ titular death makes itself known — a metaphysical nullity deeply entwined with reading itself. The point at which a book dies, Lurz reveals, is when it has reached such a sophistication of expression that the only object left for it is an evocation of nothingness.

Late in The Waves, Woolf’s character Bernard imagines a meeting of the book’s many narrators to commemorate the death of their friend Percival being overtaken by a “huge darkness of what is outside us, of what we are not. […] We were extinguished for a moment, went out like sparks in burnt paper and the blackness roared.” As Lurz notes, the “extinction” of these characters “leaves only the material remains of the book.” The representational capacity disappears, and all that’s left of the book itself is ashes. Now that’s some spiritual suppleness. Confronted with a roaring blackness, what more could you ask of a book?

The Death of the Book: Modernist Novels and the Time of Reading by John Lurz. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016