Some things will always stay print

After long campaigns carrying the fight for e-books to the print-only diehards, I’d like to turn back for once to something that can never be put into electronic format and will forever remain print. And for very good reasons. And yet it had to wait over a century until 2004 before appearing in the form its author originally wanted. And it is available online.

The work is Un coup de Dés (A Throw of the Dice) , or in full, Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s brilliant, utterly original and deeply strange free verse picture poem, which first appeared in the review Cosmopolis in 1897. Initially baffling, the layout of the work seemed to mime its theme, a meditation on chance and fatality where a master rolls the dice on the tilting deck of a foundering ship, with a meandering stream of words that allows for random skips across the text.

“In this work of an entirely new character, the poet is forced to make music with words,” Mallarmé wrote. “A sort of unfolding leitmotiv comprises the unity of the poem: the subsidiary motifs arrange themselves around it. The nature of the characters employed and the position of the white spaces serve as notes and musical intervals.”

Mallarmé was unsatisfied with the original layout in Cosmopolis, constrained by the review’s pages, and Ambroise Vollard, art dealer and art book publisher, offered to publish the work as an art book with illustrations by the Symbolist painter Odilon Redon. They entrusted the typesetting to the house of Firmin-Didot, and proofs were sent to Mallarmé then returned with corrections, which were more or less concluded by the time of his death in 1898.

The work subsequently became famous, but was never realized in the form Mallarmé intended until it was painstakingly reconstructed by Michel Pierson & Ptyx in 2002 from the photographs of the original proofs with Mallarmé’s corrections held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Only 90 copies were printed, with the exact specifications and typography that he had originally wanted, and the printer’s few errors corrected. Those copies are now held at various museums, libraries and private collections—exactly like rare works of art. Of course, there could always be another longer print run, but for now, those books are treated as individual precious objects.

And looking at the pages, you can see why, where Mallarmé uses the gutter down the centre of the double-page spread as a basic structural feature. This is work whose physical character matters almost as much as a sculpture or painting. The project’s website gives some idea of it, though. It can never be quite the same as reading the actual paper version, but you can get at least an impression of it. And you can see a translation of it, with an attempt at the layout in English, here.

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3 Comments on Some things will always stay print

  1. I am glad that Mr. MacIntosh took the time to write about something, that crossed my mind recently. Authors spend countless hours, not only writing their books, but also choosing fonts and other small styling decisions. I for one think that E-books often times do great job of retaining these design choices. This is of course also an inexact science. Questions arise such as: when do technological needs take precedence over individual artistic preferences? How do we best preserve decorative yet essential elements, such as those highlighted by MacIntosh? I can’t say that I have any answers per say, but at least I am thinking about the matter. This morning I am exceedingly glad to see that others are doing so also.

  2. Thanks, Alex, and a pleasure believe me. Most of the time I’m a zealous (overzealous) advocate of ebooks, and I particularly get peeved by people pleading about the things that don’t matter (the smell of bindings, the feel of paper between your fingers), while passing over what does matter (the words). But I think that’s just why we should take note of the times when the sheer physical form of the book *does* matter, and is intrinsic to what it’s trying to do or say. Maybe similar things will be done with ebooks, fine: but they are a different medium, and artists often load a medium until it’s bursting at the seams. You can’t always transfer that from one vessel straight to another.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to reply to my post, just brightened up my day. I am also glad that you are able to draw a distinction between essential elements of books, and the superficial. Many people who are strongly opposed to ebooks, often conflate the essential elements of literature with the ephemeral elements i.e the scent and feel of a book.

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