Mortality Between the Covers

Modernist writers like Joyce and Woolf never forgot that books are finite objects, or that we ourselves are finite beings

John Lurz at Tufts

When you read a book, the experience is both intellectual and physical, says John Lurz, an assistant professor of English, who writes about the experience of reading in his latest book.

Lurz, a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century British fiction, examines novels by Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in The Death of the Book: Modernist Novels and the Time of Reading (Fordham University Press, 2016). He argues that by drawing attention to themselves as physical objects, books of that era not only tell a story, they teach us about the process of reading and what it means to be a finite being.

In a conversation with Tufts Now, Lurz talked about how we can use the physicality of books to understand the way we read in the 21st century and use that experience to come to terms with our own mortality and make sense of the world in which we live.

Tufts Now: In The Death of the Book, what death are you writing about?

John Lurz: The book argues that the writers of that moment, in the early 20th century, were newly sensitive, newly aware of the fact that the literary texts and the linguistic performances they were composing were embodied in the object of the book.

In James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, there’s a really famous scene in which the main character has a bowel movement in the outhouse and rips off a piece of paper and wipes himself. That moment is a half-tongue-in-cheek, half-serious illustration of the kind of intimate physical relationship we have with these material objects. It’s something I think we lose if we just talk about literature as a purely linguistic phenomenon.

I’ve found that these moments, when novels seem to be looking at their own embodiment as books, are often bound with thoughts about time’s progress, temporality and mortality. They’re saying, “Look, we are finite; this is a finite phenomenon.”

Virginia Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room, which is about the education of a young upper-middle-class Englishman and his death in World War I, is written in little vignettes, separated from each other by different amounts of page space. Sometimes it’s one line between the text, sometimes three, sometimes four. At one point, the narrator is recalling a conversation she can’t hear clearly, except for the line “somehow it seems to matter.” When she reports hearing that line, it’s set off from the rest of the text. It’s surrounded by page space. It’s almost as if the novel is reminding the reader, “Hey, the page space seems to matter.”

This becomes connected with the finitude of the novel’s last scene, in which Jacob has died, and two minor characters are standing in his room. All you can see are the things he left behind, including all of his papers and writings. The novel seems to be connecting all these left-behind papers to the pages that we’ve been looking at, that the novel has been drawing our attention to. They come to work as signifiers of Jacob’s finitude and also of the book itself.

The book holds and embodies that limit, that finitude. Hence my title—The Death of the Book.

Are you also talking about the death of the book in the context of the rise of e-readers and the decline of print?

I try to bring that idea—flippant, colloquial statements that the book is dead, print is over—into the conversation.

People always say to me, “I know you hate Kindles,” and I tell them, “No, no, no.” I do plenty of reading online and in digital format—but there are certain things I want to read in hard copy, because I want to have that experience commemorated in the object of the book.

If you read a novel on a Kindle, you just turn it off at the end and, in doing so, no longer have a record of the time you’ve spent doing your reading. The book, however, works as a kind of record of that for you. For instance, a really long novel that you’ve been reading for a semester has all the marks and traces of the time you spent reading it—coffee stains, dog-eared pages, broken spine. It really becomes the site of your intellectual and emotional investment.

One of the ambitions of my book was to think about all the things the traditional book forms provide that we don’t want to overlook in our embrace of the next new thing—most significantly, the book can really make the finitude of objects perspicuous to us. And, at the same time, the material awareness these novels cultivate for us can be extended to technological phenomena—computers, iPads, Kindles, whatever comes next. Who knows what kind of reader will be introduced in the next five years? Even those objects have their own kind of temporality and finitude.

So the death you’re talking about is a good thing?

By embodying that mortality, by materializing it on the page, the book allows us to confront it. So in a sense finitude goes from being this amorphous, threatening, scary, uncontrollable condition to something we can kind of grasp and hold onto.

Anytime we can bring ourselves back down to earth and down to size by thinking of death and our own finitude and limits is a time when we can open different kinds of relationships -- between two people, between people and objects, animals, the environment.

Maybe that’s the most overblown of the claims in my book: how that feeling of your own finitude can change the way you relate to others.

How did you first get interested in literary analysis?

In college, a friend gave me Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. I read it and loved it. I had no idea why I loved it or really what was going on in the novel, but I found it very compelling.

I went through my English major thinking how much I liked this novel, and I decided I wanted to go on to advanced literature study to figure out why I liked Mrs. Dalloway so much.

Did you ever figure that out?

Not yet! But I have figured out that novels like Mrs. Dalloway and the others that I discuss in my book have a lot to say to us about the way we experience the world as a kind of shifting, changing, chaotic place. I feel like they are really good resources and maps for us to think about what it means to try to order a world that seems disorderly. And they demand a kind of attention and intellectual work that we need to do in thinking about our culture today. As we’re trying to navigate what feels like an increasingly disorganized world, we can look to them as a roadmap for a form of thinking—because these novels ask us to think in ways we might never have thought before, to question our first responses and our stock answers, to push our brains into a new shape.

Finally, these books make me feel like I’m living really intensely when I’m reading them. For me, and I hope for my students, the books get our brains and bodies firing on all cylinders, so we’re not just going through rote motions throughout our lives—we’re feeling the flow of time and all the physical and intellectual sensations occurring in our lives, even if just for a moment.

Monica Jimenez can be reached at

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