Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Comparative Literature and Literary Theory

First Advisor

Wendy Steiner


In the age of the novel, we read fiction sequentially and unselfconsciously. This practice requires us to ignore the materiality and appearance of books, for these factors disrupt narrative absorption. "The Look of the Book" explores specific books from England and America whose visual and material characteristics resist and redefine habitual experiences of reading prose. These specimens connect word and image in the book format, and they therefore resist the theories of critics since Gotthold Lessing that have separated visual and verbal modes.

Lessing's contemporary, Laurence Sterne, uses visual elements in Tristram Shandy (1760–67) to digress from the reading sequence while furthering the overall narrative. Sterne's techniques also establish a taxonomy of the book's constituent variables. In the twentieth century, as bookmaking technologies became more widely accessible, a printing renaissance brought artists into book design. Vanessa Bell creates images and designs page layouts to amplify her sister Virginia Woolf's ekphrastic fiction in the third "decorated" edition of Woolf's Kew Gardens (Hogarth Press, 1927). The illustrations change the pace of reading by integrating word, image and book structure. In Tom Phillips' A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel and Sheherezade: A Flip Book, by artist Janet Zweig and author Holly Anderson, words are inseparable from the visual layout of the page, and the resulting written texts create temporally fractured narratives. These postmodern artists' books show that narrative fiction and the physical novel are both malleable structures.

In all of these works, the "book composer," who masterminds the visual arrangement of the text, influences the reading experience in ways that have not been explored in the context of literary criticism. As predictions about the 'death of the book' circulate in the academy and popular media, this dissertation suggests that books can make available complex modes of reading that we generally do not expect from novels. This interdisciplinary approach is essential at a time when images pervade the cultural context and are being integrated more thoroughly into print media.

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