A Story from Contes pour les Bibliophiles

The End Of Books

A prognostication from the past



In 1895 Octave Uzanne and Albert Robida published, in France, Contes pour les Bibliophiles (Stories for Bibliophiles). We're going to re-publish this as an e-book, taking advantage of the ability of modern technology to reproduce the color and monochrome images in ways that would be prohibitively expensive to duplicate on paper. Here's a sample to get your interest piqued.

The eleven stories in Contes, all revolving around books (or at least printing) are interesting, bizarre, weird... one could go on in true Fanthorpian fashion. But even better than the stories are the illustrations by Albert Robida.

Robida was born in 1848 and died in 1926. During his lifetime he reportedly drew 60,000 pictures and wrote and/or illustrated over 200 books. His first published work came out in 1866, and he appeared in "La Vie Parisienne," as well as journals less well-known to the world outside France. One of his works, La Guerre au XXe Siècle (1887) is of some interest in the field of science-fictional treatments of future wars, and is the subject of current papers and a critical edition by I. F. Clarke in Britain.

Robida is forgotten (or was never known) in America, but in France he is remembered. His sketches and caricatures, particularly of humorous and satirical visions of what lay in the future, were decades ahead of their time. Disney adopted some of his drawings as backgrounds for their views of the future at a pavilion at Epcot, and web sites attempt today to bring some of his best work back into circulation.

If Robida is mostly forgotten, Uzanne can be truly said to have vanished from the cultural consciousness of the world. Yet he was well known as a writer and critic of his day, and some of his works command high prices from rare-book dealers. One presumes that much of his work was more bound to the circumstances of the current day than were the drawings of Robida, whose art has a certain timelessness to it (even where it graphically predicts a future that demonstrably did not happen).

What follows is one of the pieces from Contes. Writing and drawing in 1894, Uzanne and Robida give us predictions of a post-literate society. Music and speech are everywhere! Newspapers are forgotten, and news presenters are valued for their emotional tone instead of the accuracy of their reporting. Recordings combined with cinema present costumed drama and humor in the home. (This is 1894, remember; Edison had truly just begun to produce his films.)

Printed books are over and done with! They are no longer needed. As some companies (Hidden Knowledge, for example) begin to create electronic books that will never be published in printed form, we need to remember... it was all predicted more than a hundred years ago.

Special Note: Those of you who read "IEEE Computer Graphics" will find the May/June 2000 issue reprints several of the images here. It was our pleasure to supply them for the paper on "E-Books and the Future of Reading" by Dr. Beverly Harrison of SoftBook.

If you are reading this at the end of a communications modem, I will advise you that it may take a while to load all the images. We include this piece in the "EXTRAS" folder on our CD-ROM editions; in that case, it doesn't take much time at all. But if you are reading this on the Web, you may wish to go make yourself a cup of coffee, or pour a glass of wine ... and come back to take a look into the future that may still happen.

Read about the End of Books.

self-caricature of Robida and Uzanne

Notes on the re-creation of "The End of Books"

The original drawings in the collection Contes pour les Bibliophiles were scanned as color and black-and-white drawings at 600 dpi, and cleaned up in Photoshop. The drawings were extracted and processed individually to reduce their file size and improve their visual presentation on computer screens. The text was run through Textbridge 9, which did a surprisingly good job at OCR.

The HTML layout merges the recovered text and the processed images back together again, and is designed to approximate that of the original. It is impossible to imitate it exactly, for all browser configurations, in HTML. You can do it in PDF; we looked at conversion to PDF but decided to keep things simple. One hopes also that future XML layout tools will provide this capability.

The original is in French, and providing a proper translation is outside the scope of this project. I wrote a summary in English for those us of who do not have the French language. Or see the "Scribner's Magazine" references below.

I have no idea what was originally written as the last word in the caption of the drawing of Gutenberg and the devil. It appears to have been scratched off the printing plate.

Contes pour les Bibliophiles was noted in "The Century Magazine" (May, 1895, page 354 ff.) in a review section on "Books in Paper Covers." I say noted; but actually, only the cover was reviewed. The cover was reproduced in a photoengraving in "Century" and its artistic values were denigrated; the contents apparently remained unread. Perhaps they were unhappy because Uzanne ocasionally appeared in English in "Scribner's Magazine", which competed fiercely with "Century".

If anyone knows of contemporary reviews of Contes or "La Fin des Livres" I would much appreciate hearing from you about them.

The story itself appeared in a clumsy English translation in "Scribner's", Vol. 16 (1894), pp 221-231, with illustrations by Robida — some the same as those in the collection Contes, and some different. In general the pictures were printed more clearly in Contes. The page images are on the web in both JPEG and GIF format at Dave Price's website at Oxford

Another place to see this on the web, with a different set of JPEG images of the "Scribner's" pages, is at the University of Kent at Canterbury, which also has an HTML of the whole piece with the artwork located in approximately the right places (but of questionable size), and an HTML version with the art left out.

A fabulous resource for anyone interested in the history of American magazines (or American history in general) is the MOA project at Cornell. They have put up on the web full-page images of the complete editorial contents of long runs of 19C magazines. "Scribner's" is included; at MOA you can see what else was in the same issue with this piece. Unfortunately, their reproduction of the illustrations is not so good, either because of their imaging methodology or because they were working from bad microforms. Also, it has always been common for libraries to discard the covers and ads from magazines before binding them, to save money and shelf space; today we find the ads and cover illustrations more interesting than most of the stories and features. The volumes displayed by MOA generally lack the ads and covers. Such is life.

To find out more about Albert Robida and Octave Uzanne:

UPDATE 5 October 2006: Stéphane Bois writes again to mention an interesting article (in French) on Robida and his work, with many illustrations by Robida, in the December 2003 issue of Arts & Métiers du Livre, Number 239. He also says that examination of the volumes of Le Livre Moderne, "continuation" of Le Livre, finds that they do not contain any further stories of the type found in Contes [see below for some links].

UPDATE 13 October 2005: Robida now has his own tribute website: http://www.robida.info/! Click on the links to see various examples of Robida's work. Knowledge of French is not a requirement, though it will increase one's enjoyment. The organization "Les amis d'Albert Robida" ("The Friends of Albert Robida") is now linked from this site, and claims over 200 members.

"Albert Robida's Imperfect Future" in "History Today," July 1998. (I have not yet seen this article myself.)

A bio-bibliographical essay, with pictures of some of his books. (In French.) And, of course, television predicted in 1877 (in English and French).

Some interesting pages at pansophist.com display Albert Robida illlustrations, as used by Disney at the recently closed Horizons pavilion (1983-99) at Epcot: Introduction and Follow-on.

A different piece by Uzanne, also from "Scribner's", (1892, p. 558) can also be found at the MOA project: "Conversations and Opinions of Victor Hugo - from Unpublished Papers Found at Guernsey". Yet another is "The Arts Relating to Women, and their Exhibition in Paris" (Vol. 13 (1893), page 503). You should be able to go directly to the "Scribner's" volumes at MOA from this entry page.

All of the URLs given above are subject to sudden and unexpected change! The web is dynamic, changing, upredictable, and sometimes unreliable. They were tested, updated, and working correctly on 13 October 2005. In the six years since this page first went online, more than half the links originally listed have gone dark or moved, and one was taken over by a porn site. You can always get the latest links by careful use of a search engine like Google.

UPDATE 13 October 2005:
Stéphane Bois writes to send us many fascinating pieces of information about Uzanne and Robida, and to tell us that the original publications of several of the sections of Contes, in the magazine Le Livre, are now online in the "Gallica" digital library section of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Whle this magazine ceased publication in 1889, its successor magazine, Le Livre Moderne, was also under the direction of Uzanne; issues of this magazine are not yet online, but it is likely that further pieces (possibly including La Fin des Livres) appeared there.

Stéphane also sent biographies and reviews of Uzanne and Robida and their work, which we will be making available for you when time permits.



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This page updated 27 August 2002, 13 October 2005, and 4 October 2006