The category of “books about books” may seem a perversely specialized one, but many serious readers and almost all passionate collectors eventually want to learn more about the potent rectangular objects that deliver so much pleasure to our lives. Massively detailed author bibliographies, compact volumes like John Carter’s witty “ABC for Book Collectors,” and memoirs such as book dealer David Randall’s “Dukedom Large Enough” duly provide both entertainment and instruction. So do Lothar Müller’s “White Magic: The Age of Paper” and G. Thomas Tanselle’s superb collection of bibliographical essays, “Portraits and Reviews.”

Müller is a newspaperman, the features editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung. It’s just barely possible that in his day job he commissions zingy pieces about Justin Bieber or the German equivalent of the Kardashians. In “White Magic,” however, he focuses on paper in Western culture, especially “the question of what modern European literature knows about the material from which it is made, as well as on the links between the history of paper technology and the emergence of periodicals.”

In early chapters, he briefly discusses paper in China, the Middle East and Renaissance Europe, reminding us of the multiple uses to which this new material could be put. Surprising factoids and provocative insights abound. According to economist Harold Innis, “stone, clay tablets and parchment are ‘heavy’ media which enable a civilization to anchor itself in the past and eternalize itself.” But “light” media, such as paper, “encourage spatially wide-ranging, horizontal communication. They make it possible to control large territories, and their circulation function trumps their storage function.” Philip II of 16th-century Spain was known as the “paper king” — and the founder of modern bureaucracy — because he employed letters, forms, questionnaires and other written documents to govern his vast empire.

Renaissance businesses soon depended on paper for their bills and receipts, double-entry bookkeeping and office records. Müller notes that playing cards — which in the 15th century “consumed far more paper than chanceries and town councils” — were cleverly repurposed as an early form of that once essential educational and reference tool, the index card.

As Müller moves into modern times and the post-Gutenberg era, he enhances his cultural history with sociological analysis and literary criticism. He notes that the phrase “found among the papers . . .” — frequent in the subtitles of 17th-century books — implied the existence of some “hidden historical, political or biographical truth.” As a result, “the opposition between the private and the public, secrecy and transparency, became linked to the opposition between unprinted and printed paper.” Eventually, nations began to create state archives, without which modern historiography could hardly exist. As he continues, Müller also considers the place of paper in Rabelais’s “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” and Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” Several pages emphasize the vital importance of the emerging postal system. Müller notes that letter paper is the locus of intimacy and interiority, where “things that could not be said could be written instead” and then shows how Samuel Richardson used this insight in the epistolary novel “Clarissa.” Early newspapers, he suggests, developed out of the business letter, made public and supersized.

“White Magic: The Age of Paper,” by Lothar Müller. (Polity)

In the 19th century, the use of wood pulp instead of rags, and the development of the paper-making machine, made possible the rise of inexpensive periodicals (a revolution chronicled in Balzac’s greatest novel, “Lost Illusions”). Those penny newspapers and cheap magazines, hungry for copy, established a market for short stories and soon led to the emergence of serialized fiction, like that of Charles Dickens. Newspaper ads, this scholar-journalist reminds us, are what Leopold Bloom sells, and he parses their meaning in the collagist masterpiece that is James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” In an epilogue, Müller intimates a link between enriched e-texts and pre-Gutenberg culture: A “printed book has a high affinity with the pole of definitiveness, while the handwritten manuscript has a high affinity with optionality.”

While “White Magic” is a panoramic literary-historical work reminiscent of Erich Auerbach’s “Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature,” G. Thomas Tanselle’s “Portraits and Reviews” offers some of the liveliest writing about textual criticism since A.E. Housman. Tanselle is our leading bibliographical scholar, that is — to borrow his own definition — “one who studies books as objects, in order to follow the clues they provide to book-production history and, in turn, to the history and authority of textual variations.”

That sounds drearily academic, yet these biographical sketches and articles are anything but that. When Tanselle praises the life’s work of such distinguished bookmen as Frederic G. Melcher (who established the Newbery and Caldecott awards) or William Matheson, the former courtly chief of rare books at the Library of Congress, or when he writes about the novelist and memoirist Nancy Hale or Vera Brodsky Lawrence, that commanding historian of American music in the 19th century, the results are perfectly composed pen portraits, as elegant as they are insightful.

Throughout, Tanselle underscores that these academics, librarians, collectors and writers exemplify, in their varying ways, the civilized values formed by humane learning. Still, the correction of taste, or of bad scholarship, remains an essential aspect of the humanist’s calling, and Tanselle doesn’t shirk it. In the longer “Reviews” portion of this handsome volume, his dissections and ripostes could be characterized by words Tanselle himself applies to Gordon N. Ray, the great authority on Thackeray and illustrated books: “His positions were unambiguous, and they were expressed with logic, illustrative allusion, and eloquence.”

When Tanselle starts his review of Ray Lewis White’s editions of Sherwood Anderson by declaring them “thoroughly unsatisfactory,” you wouldn’t want to be Mr. White. He concludes a damning analysis of Hans Walter Gabler’s edition of Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by dryly observing that “its illogical underpinning and eccentric execution prevent one from greeting its arrival with any enthusiasm.” Of a guide to identifying first editions, he crisply declares that it is “a product of carelessness in every respect, from physical appearance . . . to textual content.”

Tanselle’s precision of mind and deductive rigor approach the Sherlockian. In his outstanding essay “Emily Dickinson as an Editorial Problem,” he patiently lays out opposing rationales in editing, examining “documentary texts” that reproduce essentially raw manuscript and critical editions that reconstruct as closely as possible the author’s intended text. This latter approach requires an editor to present and “bring an educated judgment to bear on every piece of evidence.”

In consequence, as he stresses, “the apparatus that scholarly editions offer is a basic and rewarding part of the reading experience, and editions that eliminate some of this information are correspondingly impoverished.” Similarly, he periodically reiterates that the formation of a well-considered book collection can be — and at its best should be — a scholarly enterprise, one that calls for knowledge and creativity. It’s not just hoarding or investing.

“Portraits and Reviews,” by G. Thomas Tanselle. (Bibliographical Society/University of Virginia)

May I close by saying that I’ve hardly done more than hint at the intellectual riches in “White Magic” and “Portraits and Reviews”? I’ve learned a lot from reading them, and so will you.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post on Thursdays.


The Age of Paper

By Lothar Müller

Translated from the German by Jessica Spengler

Polity. 311 pp. $25


By G. Thomas Tanselle

Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia. 485 pp. $55