All posts by justin

1895 – la fin des livres?

listening online

She’s relaxing on the sofa with her headphones on; her friend is listening to a novel. Between them they can get hold of pretty well anything they choose to hear – literature or music – channel-hopping from dance to Wagner to poetry or from philosophy to novels. The year is 1895 and the days of reading from printed books seem to be numbered.

At the dawn of the electrical age the Parisian publisher and dandy Octave Uzanne and his friend, Albert Robida, a science-fiction author and illustrator, imagined a new literary world. The printed book was replaced by a subscription service where access to books and music was provided in the home with electrical gadgets wired to a central network. Those without the necessary equipment at home were not excluded and could get pay-as-go access from listening points in public places or on public transport. Libraries were repositories for recorded sound, and books existed as audio recordings, preferably in the voice of their author. Uzanne and Robida’s fantasy was published as ‘La fin des livres’ in Contes pour les Bibliophiles (1895).

Contes pour les Bibliophiles, 1895

Uzanne was a bibliophile who foresaw the potential of electronic publishing. But he also saw that printed books could survive in the coming era by becoming objects of desire. He understood that reading was not just an intellectual activity and he set about creating books which were not only beautiful, but which took delight in doing things that only books could do. He relished the power of the well-designed cover and the excitement it brought to the opening of a new book for the first time. He sometimes added extra jackets in embroidered silk with ribbons and laces to be untied. Texture was important. Paper was carefully chosen and decorative tissue guards protected the many illustrations to provide a whispered rustle as the images were revealed. Text and illustration were luxuriously combined on almost every page. His books were the bibliophilic equivalent of a collector’s vitrine, stuffed with exotic (and sometime erotic) exhibits in a heady mixture of graphic styles.

Octave Uzanne was not sentimental about his books. They didn’t, for example, hark back to an imagined golden age, and his project was entirely different from the Arts and Crafts movement across the English Channel which was busily recreating the book arts of the past. Uzanne loved technology as much as his sci-fi friend Robida. The two of them haunted the Paris Expositions looking for new printing techniques to perfect their colour plates. While their books were designed to appear exotic and exclusive, they were affordable and widely available. Certainly editions were limited, but they ran to 1000 or more copies in most cases.

These works are steeped in the fin-de-siècle Paris scene but some of Octave Uzanne’s thoughts and predictions on the relationship between print and changing communication technologies have become relevant to today’s ‘death of the book’ debates and to contemporary developments in publishing.

If you’d like to read more there is an excellent book on the Parisian bibliophilic scene of the 1890s, with lots of material on Octave Uzanne: The New Bibliopolis. French Book Collectors and the Culture of Print 1880-1914 by Willa Silverman (University ofToronto Press, 2008).

to begin at the beginning…

Some recently discovered prehistory.

When I took my first steps into the rare book trade in 1990 I had no idea my family had already been booksellers for over half a century.  The reason for my ignorance was that the period in question had been roughly 1870 to 1930, when the firm of ‘A. Maurice & Co, Ancient and Modern Booksellers’ traded books all over the world from their shop at 23 Bedford Street, Covent Garden, London.

The firm’s founder was Armand Maurice, my great-great-grandfather. I knew nothing of him until a couple of years ago when his name was mentioned at various family gatherings when discussing my own bookselling experiences. Since then, the internet has thrown up an increasing number of references to him and his firm. He was born in London in 1865 of émigré French parents, Armand (a Jew) and Josephine Magnien (a ‘proselyte’, presumably Catholic). Both the French and Jewish  strands in my family history were new to me. The firm he founded, A. Maurice & Co was later run by his son (also Armand), my great grandfather’s brother.

A. Maurice & Co. was most active at the turn of the nineteenth-century and bookselling in 1890s Covent Garden seems terribly romantic in retrospect. Bedford Street was a hive of activity. William Heinemann (publisher of Oscar Wilde’s manifesto, Intentions and of Wells, Stevenson and Kipling) was next door at number 21, while J. M. Dent and Company was a couple of doors away pioneering the Everyman series. Revisiting Bedford Street this week I find that nothing survives of number 23 or its neighbours, the whole site having been redeveloped in the past decade or so. Which leaves me free to imagine the scene in the 1890s…

23 Bedford Street, the site today

Few traces of A. Maurice & Co survive. No archive, and certainly no books. But the internet throws up more and more ghosts, with chance references to catalogues, customers at home and abroad and even some of Armand’s books, including what must have been his very best: a copy of the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio. More of that (and others) anon.

I am actively seeking more information from friends, family and librarians. Armand issued many hundreds of catalogues, yet few survive, even in the libraries he sold books to. I have a couple and would love to have more. I’ll post more information as I find it, interspersed with my own  rare book discoveries…

Mnemosyne: personified by Rossetti in 1881

Armand Maurice used the codeword “Mnemosyne, London” as his telegraphic address. In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, daughter of Gaia and Uranus, mother of the nine Muses was the personification of memory, as in mnemonic. What more appropriate word for a purveyor of old books. Here she is, pictured by Rossetti in 1881.

Updates: since writing the above, I’ve been able to turn up quite  a bit more information. I now have several A. Maurice & Co catalogues and an example of the firm’s book label giving their earlier address in rue de la Huchette (Paris) and Tavistock Row, London. Most excitingly, I’ve also traced a copy of Shakespeare’s revered First Folio (1623) bought and sold by the firm: the so-called Daubuz copy now in Japan.