Anna Sigrídur Arnar: The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, The Artist’s Book, and The Transformation of Print Culture

University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, 2011, 428 pp, Hardcover, $45.00, ISBN: 978-0-226-02701-2

The French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) is examined in this ambitious study by art historian Anna Sigrídur Arnar. Arnar approaches Mallarmé from the viewpoint of cultural history with a particular focus on the social dimensions of illustrated books and book history in general. Mallarmé is an ideal candidate for this approach due to his commitment to the book; he pondered the book’s possibilities and limitations in several essays, as well as in correspondence and other statements. Often, he depicted the book from a utopian viewpoint, deeming it the most adequate forum for debates about democracy (among other issues).

Following her introduction, Arnar’s study is divided into four main parts. The first part, “Defining the Book”, situates Mallarmé’s work within the historical context. Arnar argues that Mallarmé has often been misunderstood as an elitist author, an auteur difficile, whose texts were considered obscure by contemporaries and later critics. While Arnar agrees that Mallarmé’s texts are complex, she emphasizes that he intended to provoke the reader into a more valuable reading experience. Arnar sheds new light on Mallarmé, underscoring his views on print and book culture as an additional facet of his biography. In addition, this part deals with the notion of the heroic legacy of the book as opposed to other, less prestigious forms of publication which rose in popularity due to the industrialization of literature in the early 19th century. Charles Baudelaire, fellow poet and Mallarmé’s contemporary, used terms relating to publication formats extensively in his art criticism, providing another example of this development. Mallarmé’s reverence of the book becomes apparent in his writings, for example in an essay titled “Le Livre, instrument spirituel” (1895), in which he juxtaposes the book and the newspaper, while recognizing the power of the mass media. Mallarmé also shared a veneration of Edgar Allen Poe’s philosophical and mathematical approach to writing with Baudelaire, which explains Mallarmé’s focus on Poe in his later work.

Parts Two and Three concentrate on Mallarmé’s involvement in the establishment of deluxe edition artist’s books (livres de peintre). Mallarmé publicly denounced any form of illustration in 1898, a stance typical of literary writers at the time. However, he did not mean to decry his own book projects. Rather, he tried to differentiate between traditional illustrated books and books with so-called “original prints” by renowned artists, thus repackaging the latter as livres de peintre. Part Two, “Forging the Livre de Peintre”, provides an in-depth look at original printmaking and etching. Mallarmé’s 1875 publication Le Corbeau, a translation of Poe’s poem “The Raven”, illustrated with lithographs by Edouard Manet, serves as the most prominent example of a livre de peintre, which, while artistically ambitious, was a complete failure from a financial point of view, as was Manet and Mallarmé’s second joint project L’Après-midi d’un faune. Arnar deftly uncovers the publishing history of these and other projects, emphasizing that the exclusive livres de peintre did not fulfill Mallarmé’s own vision for the act of reading as a democratic and public practice. Part Three, “Reading and Designing the Book”, focuses on Mallarmé’s late poem “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” and his preoccupation with the process of reading at the turn of the century, in particular with the concept of participatory reading. Arnar embeds her case study within a concise comparison of European book design around 1900.

In the final part, titled “Transformations of the Book”, Arnar considers Mallarmé’s (unfulfilled) goal to compose the ultimate book, Le Livre, for which he harbored progressive ambitions. Arnar features Mallarmé’s understanding of the book as a powerful instrument within the political and social context of fin-de-siècle France. Finally, using Jacques Scherar’s publication of Mallarme’s plans for Le Livre in 1957 as a starting point, Arnar discusses the significance of Mallarmé’s commitment to the book for the transformation of print culture into digital culture today.

Arnar’s study is exemplary for several reasons: its multifaceted approach, its meticulous scholarship and its convincing claim that Mallarmé was rooted within and influenced the transformation of book culture. Arnar’s style is also commendable: the clear and engaging prose makes her argument easily accessible to interested readers. In addition the book boasts an impressive unity of content and design. At a time when the “death of print” is postulated regularly and university presses struggle with funding, Arnar’s book is a sight for sore eyes. The volume is heavily illustrated with countless black-and-white figures as well as 12 color plates collected at the center of the volume. The typography and design are beautifully executed with an eye for detail and ornamentation, e.g. the vibrant pattern on the dust jacket is taken from a decorative paper sheath on Mallarmé’s manuscript notes for Le Livre.

The study will be of lasting importance to literary scholars and scholars of art and book history. In particular students of book history can view this book as an example of the depth and breadth that book historical approaches can offer. Due to its beauty and accessibility, the book is certainly recommendable for other interested individuals as well.

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Correspondence to Corinna Norrick-Rühl.

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Norrick-Rühl, C. Anna Sigrídur Arnar: The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, The Artist’s Book, and The Transformation of Print Culture. Pub Res Q 28, 264–265 (2012).

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