Video: “BOOKISH”

Please enjoy this curator’s introduction to “BOOKISH: Artist Books from the Collection of the Rotch Library of Architecture and Planning, 1960-present.” Executed in conjunction with “Unbound: Speculations on the Future of the Book,” BOOKISH explored the means and methods through which artist books challenged the idea of the book as traditionally conceived.

Symposium Wrap-Up

KICK-OFF READING by Christian Bök

Co-Sponsored with Purple Blurb


We started the event with a kick-off reading, co-sponsored with Purple Blurb, featuring experimental poet Christian Bök, who has striven for ten years to engineer an unkillable bacterium so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem in its genome, but also an operant machine for writing a poem in response–a poem that might, in fact, outlive terrestrial civilization. Bök was introduced by Nick Montfort, and student readers Aimee Harrison and Alvin Mwijuka shared their work.

(Listen to a podcast here, or watch a video here. Please be patient while the media loads.)


MIT Archives & Special Collections, and the Wunsch Conservation Lab

On Friday morning, an open house at MIT Libraries allowed visitors to see some wonderful books. Above, Stephen Skuce and Pat Olson share some of the rare books in the Institute Archives. Below, Nancy Schrock demonstrates preservation practices in the Conservation Lab.


Welcoming Remarks

UNBOUND: Speculations on the Future of the Book

Amaranth Borsuk and Gretchen Henderson (Listen here. Please be patient while the podcast loads.)

Panel One


Participants: Bonnie Mak (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), James Reid-Cunningham (Boston Athenaeum), Wyn Kelley (MIT Literature), Mary Fuller (MIT Literature)
Moderator: Gretchen Henderson (MIT Writing and Humanistic Studies)

(Listen here, or watch a video here. Please be patient while the media loads.)

Above: Mary Fuller, Wyn Kelley, James Reid-Cunningham, Bonnie Mak, Sign Interpreter

Bonnie Mak: “Entanglements of the Page”
Mak draws upon research on medieval manuscripts from her new book, How the Page Matters, to explore the role of the page in the production and transmission of knowledge.

James Reid-Cunningham: “The Long Happy Life of the Book”
Reid-Cunningham discusses the history of the codex, and why books didn’t die out long ago, while also examining the origins of contemporary book art, using some of his own books to describe the book as an artwork rather than a mere carrier of information.

Wyn Kelley: “Leaving an Open Margin: the Example of Herman Melville”
Kelley considers the margin as a creative space for writers, critics, and artists.

Mary Fuller: “Where the Old Things Are: The Books We Forget”
Fuller engages another kind of old book: the books that are uncatalogued, in storage, queued for discard in MIT’s storage annex, and think about the dynamics of forgetting books and collections as well as the work of returning them to memory.

Panel Two


Participants: Gita Manaktala (MIT Press), Christian Bök (University of Calgary), Bob Stein (SocialBook)
Moderator: Amaranth Borsuk (MIT Writing and Humanistic Studies and Comparative Media Studies)

(Listen here, or watch a video here. Please be patient while the media loads.)

Above: Bob Stein, Gita Manaktala, Christian Bök

Gita Manaktala: “Shifts in Scholarly Publishing at MIT Press”

Manaktala considers key shifts in reading and writing practices and explains how editors are well-positioned to help their authors navigate this new terrain.

Bob Stein: “Social Book: A Post-Print Publishing Platform”

Stein suggests that the future of books is in collaborative reading and demonstrates the SocialBook platform.

Christian Bök: “The Xenotext”

Bök explains his decade-long project to encode a poem into the DNA of an extremophile that will encipher a poem in return, outlining both the scientific and conceptual/poetic process of writing The Xenotext.

Panel Three


Participants: N. Katherine Hayles (Duke University), Rita Raley (University of California Santa Barbara), Nick Montfort (Comparative Media Studies and Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, MIT)
Moderator: David Thorburn (MIT Literature and Comparative Media Studies)

(Listen here, or watch a video here. Please be patient while the media loads.)

Above: Rita Raley, N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort

N. Katherine Hayles: “Apophenia: David Clark’s 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein”

Hayles provides media-specific readings of Clark’s net art work and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, both of which are “resistant experimental works […] within the traditions with which they associate themselves.”


Rita Raley: “Ian Hatcher’s ‘Signal To Noise'”

Raley argues that today’s texts are part of an “expanded field” continuously and dynamically created by communities of authors, commentators, and readers and facilitating intersubjective exchange.

Nick Montfort: “10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10”

Montfort explains this unusual line of code for the Commodore 64 and describes the process of writing a collaborative monograph analyzing this single line from a number of critical perspectives by ten authors using a single voice.

David Thorburn (Moderator)

A complete write-up of the panel is also available on the MIT Communications Forum website.

A Few Faces From Unbound

Thanks to a wonderful audience for engaged questions and thoughtful participation!


The following video (in two parts) was part of my presentation to the Louisville Conference of Literature, February 2012. I am presenting a more extensive multimedia paper at the International Book Conference in Barcelona, June 29-July 2, 2012.



Jaded Ibis Productions (and its imprint Jaded Ibis Press) will be moving into research regarding literature as it can and may manifest in Brain Computer Interface, while still publishing print mashups.

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Debra Di Blasi, Founding Publisher

Ten Maps of Sardonic Wit (Christian Bök)

This is a guest post by Christian Bök, who launches the UNBOUND symposium tonight at 6PM in MIT’s 6-120 with his reading / talk “The Xenotext, For Now.”

Ten Maps of Sardonic Wit is also “bookish artware”—in this case, a codex, whose cover, spine, pages, and words consist of nothing but thousands of LEGO bricks, each one no bigger than a flat tile, four pegs in size. Each page is a rectangular plate of tiles, three layers thick, and the surface of each page depicts a black-and-white mosaic of words, spelling out a single line of poetry. Each line is an anagram that exhaustively permutes the fixed array of letters in the title, recombining them into a coherent sequence of statements about the relationship between atoms and words. The poem suggests that just as permuted elements can create compounds, so also can permuted phonemes create syllables. The letters of the poem become the literary variants of subatomic particles, and the book itself embodies these molecular metaphors, insofar it too consists of discrete elements that can be dismantled and recombined to form a radically different structure.

Ten Maps of Sardonic Wit might easily disintegrate into a granular pile of atomic debris, whereupon the reader can assemble these plastic remains into an unrelated sculpture. The book is a concrete allegory for what Jean Baudrillard calls a “‘Brownian’ stage of language, an emulsional stage of the signifier, homologous to the molecular stage of physical matter [—a stage] that liberates ‘harmonies’ of meaning just as fission or fusion liberates new molecular affinities.” The anagram does not recycle so much as atomize its meaning, dissecting it, dispersing it, until the title vanishes (just as the object itself might disintegrate into the entropy of its own molecular decay). I have sold this object for $9000.00 to the globally renowned artist Takashi Murakami (the founder of the pop-art movement called “Superflat,” a genre of Japanese painting that depicts psychedelic images of Pokémon—cartoonish characters that seem preternaturally two-dimensional).


ten maps of sardonic wit


atoms in space now drift

on a swift and epic storm


soft wind can stir a poem


 snow fits an optic dream

into a scant prism of dew


 words spin a faint comet


some words in fact paint

two stars of an epic mind


manic words spit on fate

Questions about Future Books

Today the “Unbound” symposium begins! As part of the registration process, we asked participants: “What questions do you have about the future of the book?” The responses follow ~ please add your questions in the comments!

What will be the future bodies of books?

What’s more perishable, a printed book on archival paper or a Kindle e-book?

What about access to special collections and rare books, given digitization?

Is the contemporary book form eternal?

Must poetry adapt to preserve its autonomy when read from a device with a screen?

What happens to publishers?

How will digitization effect art libraries/art research?

What changes will new publishing technologies bring to traditional modes of academic legitimacy / tenure / peer review, etc.?

What about access in many forms — open access enabled through digitization, accessibility of e-readers and e-texts to people with disabilities, making archival collections accessible to readers w/sight impairments?

In what ways can we move beyond the tired “death of the book” discussions and focus on the birth of something new? What are the possibilities?

Does the codex book revert to luxury item?

What about new technology and both the challenges and opportunities of that technology?

What is the future of the book as tangible object?

What about digital reading finances?

What is in the future of book discovery, especially in a world with fewer and fewer bookstores?

What are the economic implications behind the future of e-books?

What is the role of the publisher?

What is the role of intermediaries, the access, the collaboration?

How many futures are there?

What about the cultures/communities in which books and other means of info exchange derive meaning/significance, when I am in “the” book as such?

What about telegraphic code dictionaries, books as means to ends?

How do books as physical artifacts anchor truth in a virtual world?

How will traditional publishers embrace emerging technologies and expand their view of the definition of a book?

What new creative forms are made possible by ebooks?

What differences arise in how we read or view digital versus print material, especially in regards to attention and linearity (or non-linearity) and how those differences in form might effect thought processes?

How do we learn and be inspired by the book?

How will the evolving format of the book change the way people read?

Have we learned/are we learning anything about actual differences in the reading experience depending on format (print vs. digital)? (Retention; learning outcomes; aesthetic/emotional response, etc.)

Where are the convergences?

How will we be able to archive and study the progression of a manuscript through pre-publication stages in the electronic age?

How is the future book connected to its past?

What should libraries and librarians be doing to prepare themselves and their institutions for the future?

When will people accept that physical and electronic books must coexist?

How secure/stable/compatable is the archiving of e-books?

How will physical and digital components of books complement each other?

How will various forms of digital books – especially those with dynamic/link elements – be archived and cataloged?

Who pays for e-lit?

Can print and electronic co-exist?

When will printed books cease to be produced?

How will form change content?

What will be the future for hand bound books?

How will old book forms be valued, and their particular haptic values be viewed?

How can we reenergize interest in the book as a physical object? How can brick-and-mortar bookstores survive?

What can we learn about the books of the past to shape the books of the future? Is book the right word to talk about the “book” of the future? Who will have access to the books of the future? What happens to reading & writing in the book’s future?

Is it right around the corner or a long way off? How will we know? How much paper will it involve? What is a book, anyway?

What is meant by book?

What do we want academic publishing to be?

How will e-books achieve a more haptic or interactive aesthetic? It seems like several qualities of the physical book simply can’t be reproduced digitally.

Has the definition of what a book is already changed?

What continuities will we see with the book’s pasts?

What about e-book vs. traditional methods?

Will future technologies such as thin bendable displays with integrated computer/communications components allow a blending of print/electronic books so that a print text can also link to other resources via computer/communications strips embedded in the book — enabling the contents of the book to be updated with new information and links to other information?

With our attention spans getting shorter and shorter with every generation, what kind of future do books have? What does media — social and otherwise — mean for the future of books as objects?

How are authors responding creatively to the new possibilities of publishing in a post-artifact world?

How the publishing industry will have to compromise and adapt in the light of new technologies, and how this will affect readership?

What else can be a book?

Will books become more or less precious as we move toward the future?

Will printed books and bookstores survive the ebook movement?

For rare book dealers, what changing practices will arise in collecting, and new theories of the collectible? Maybe it’s time to rethink what’s “first.”

Are e-books here to stay?

How will digital technologies affect the costs of textbooks? Will the cost of textbooks become less of a contentious issue as they migrate into digital formats?

As companies like Amazon and Apple move into publishing, what are the implications, both in terms of what/who they publish and how we gain access to those titles?

When will we have great reader technology?

How will e-books impact collection development in academic libraries?

How will it impact the discovery and dissemination of knowledge and research?

The book and linear thinking; the book as object; having and holding vs. access; labor process and book production?

What about digital curriculum as well as the future of the publishing industry?

Is the future of the book something we should be so concerned with? Evolution is the trip itself, not the planning for it.  It will happen and maybe the anticipation is fun but it will be more like a roller coaster ride, we just hang on and enjoy the trills.

I have been dismayed by the amount of whining that I hear about the advent of digital media and hope to hear some intelligent people considering the ways in which new technologies will solve some problems of information dissemination that the book was not suited for — also would like to discuss the place of the physical book in a digital age, how the Espresso machine can work in tandem with digital publication, how literary production might develop, etc and so on? So long as there is no whining about how print is the only medium in which we should trade.

What forms will books take as time passes?

Ten year ago, folks at MIT were working on digital ink and now we have the Kindle. When and how we see the melding of digital tech with the tactile qualities of paper?

Will the book as we know it disappear forever?

What kinds of scholarship are fostered or constrained by printed books and by electronic books?

Can print and online books survive together and compliment each other?

How long will books be published?

Will there be books as we know them in the future?

What are the changing readerly practices, and how do they impact the relationship and roles of the author and the reader? How can/will book history inform the form and circulation of the the future of the book?

What about digital preservation solutions for e-books and related media?

Is there an “other side” to this watershed?

Can technology fully replace the experience of interacting with print material? What qualities would be required in a technology for that to happen? Will publishers really ever come to a place where they are comfortable publishing in only digital form and in a common format that can be used across platforms?

How quickly are people shifting from books to e-ink? How are university librarians thinking about the next 10 years?

How will e-books change the nature of teaching, learning and research? How will the use of multimedia can enhance the experience of the print book?

What is the right pricing method for the future forms of books and magazines (printed, iPad/iphone/kindle/nook versions)?

How will digital possibilities change the ways that book artists make books?

What will be the venues for innovative print fiction in a market-driven climate in which an ever-diminishing number of readers purchases books? How do libraries complicate the issue if they are relying more and more on electronic resources?  How does the Internet affect the trajectory of literary history?

Why the pessimism over books as they have largely existed for centuries?—deathbed or immanent change in the description nudges out thinking of the book (which is also more plural than the description suggests…) as not needing to change (or us…).

How are we going to preserve and share books in the future if print gives way to digital?

Where are we headed? Are books to become a dusty collectible, or is print necessary to validate the efforts of knowledge seekers and creators?

Will e-books replace print books eventually?

What is the future of the e-book?

Will there be free repositories of books in whatever format (physical, digital, etc.) preserved for posterity?  Who will be the guardians of our history and our culture, the custodians of civilization, in the future?  Will it be “Free To All?”

How will authors reach  readers and how will readers find books in the evolving landscape of publishing?

Do changes in the material form of the book affect learning?  Who will preserve digital culture?  Who will ensure our existing works of culture are moved into the digital age? If books are digital how do we ensure literacy crosses the digital divide?  How does image inform text and vice versa?

The popular media, format, and distribution channels of future books?
Especially interested in ways of facilitating access and exploring digital (and other) interactions with special collections books and mss. in the future?

How will digital texts interact with printed texts? Printed texts for the pleasure of reading, digital texts for research? Will we see an increase of book art and bibliophile editions?

If libraries are about classification, storage, and access to content, and that content becomes online, how can and should academic, research & public library spaces change?

How will the shift to “modern” forms of the book affect our relationship with more traditional textual forms?

Confirm interdependence of print and screen?

What about paper? When will e-books become independent from a power source?

What will happen to indexing and other aspects of book production?

What media types that wouldn’t resemble books enough as to still be called books might displace the book? I mean, virtual books are still books; for instance they all still have pages.

I don’t have questions but am interested in hearing questions.

What is the future of books on paper?

Will it survive?

When considering the future of the book, where do bookbinders fare?

How can e-books and digital media be extended to incorporate the tactile richness of handmade paper and letterpress printing?

Many questions. Here’s one: Physical books began as precious objects, but the great majority of them eventually became very common. But is it possible or even likely that the physical book is destined to become a species of precious object once again?

Where and how will the kinds of sustained narrative development found in long fictions and complex scholarly thought be preserved/reinvented appropriately?

Will the proliferation of e-books have the opposite effect of regenerating interest in (paper-based) fine press books?

When will paper books disappear for good?

How will education in schools be changed by the digital book?

What about the future of print publications?

What are others imagining future forms of the book to be whether hard copy, electronic, or other?

Where does the line exist between practicality and fine art in the future of the book?

Will access to knowledge actually be limited rather than opened if we go completely over to electronic books rather than print ones? What is the future of the library?

What does the library of the future look like?

How will we produce humanities content in digital form? How will we move humanists into digital publishing?

iBooks/e-books are a sustaining innovation over the traditional print. What will be the disruptive innovation?

Currently using four different forms of “books” in daily life. How many forms will we use simultaneously in the future?

Will devices dictate the future of the book? That is, will what we read on be the most important component (rather than the reader, the writer, etc.) in determining the future of the book? What better devices are on the way?

How new “books” may be experienced; image/text relationships, etc.?

What does the rhetoric of the “digital revolution” seek to obscure about the long-standing tradition of the book?

Do we still value the relatively stable form of knowledge the book represents — or is it the conversation, the process, and the proposition that we care about today?

Can we think of the future of the BOOKS, as in the many forms books can take, as they have in the past? (General) What are margins, and how can we use them creatively in the books of the future? (Particular)

What are the implications of robotic writing for the future of poetry?

Will Amazon eat all players?

What about conversion of textbooks to electronic format?

In what ways are the e-book world collaborating with the gaming and artists’ books world? It seems like a trillion dollar future.

Why are audiobooks seldom included in the book’s future?

What lies behind our era of ‘unbound’ness? Why do our stories need new technological mediums to be told?

What are the implications for Catalogers?  Are readers less interested in actual books?

Electronic publication has broadened writer’s access to both the means of production and dissemination for their texts. Should publishers, editors, agents, and critics others continue to play their traditional roles as cultural curators (and gatekeepers)?

Will the book remain an essentially ad-free medium?

How does the print industry regain momentum?

Why didn’t the book die out long ago?

How to best meld the print book with the eBook for preservation of the scholarly historical record? How to sustain the use of the print book both for its intellectual content and for its physical form as an historical or art object?

Where is the book headed?

How might history and tradition relate to emerging digital forms?

What technological and legal changes need to occur before the on-screen “page” captures images (art and text) with greater typographical and visual representation?

Will scholars who have long prospered using print material be forced to use visually-challenging, tactile-wanting and aesthetically-boring e-books??

Is publishing turning to transmedia to counteract the losses in print fiction?

The codex — what we think of as the “book” today — seems likely to endure for centuries to come as a means of storing and transmitting information.  What I’m interested in as an author is what story-forms are enabled by electronic media — I’ll point to Christine Love’s “don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story” as a story which cannot be told as effectively in any form but the form she gave it.  So, what aren’t we doing yet that we could be?  What stories can we tell electronically that we can’t tell otherwise?

Where do you think it is going? Do you think people will ever want to give up the physicality of the book as an object? Isn’t there room for other avenues of bookmaking, without threatening the book?

Which future?

How can books become multi-modal, combining sensorial and abstract forms of representation?

How might collaboration in authoring/bookmaking come to greater prominence considering the ways in which book arts/artist’s books expand the notion of what a book is, and the ways in which social media encourages communication and exchange, and obliterates geographic and temporal barriers to co-creation?

What about new formats for storytelling?

How responsive will the ‘Future of the Book’ be compared to the ‘Past of the Book’, which has been admittedly rich and successful?

What short-term and long-term business models, particularly models involving sharing e-books and DRM-free (or DRM-easy) e-books are on the horizon?

How will we assure that books don’t just “disappear” (get deleted from e-readers)?

Will paper books become vintage/collectors/luxury items, like LPs? Will e-reader technology keep changing as quickly as other forms of media (VHS to DVD to Blueray, record to tape to CD to mp3…)? How will that change how we read?

What about new reading practices related to new material forms?

What will the book of the future look like?

How do future books relate to the future of museums + archives?

When will libraries become obsolete?

What is it – the future?

How do we imagine the book, as an object or as a site where inquiry happens? How does prioritizing one over the other change how we make new books and preserve or reinvent the idea of the book?

Will sustained argument and narrative matter much in the future?

Will unique artists books be more relevant?

Ah, the many varieties of e-books….

Books are the traditional venue for contributing ideas to the public forum. Digital media favors shorter communications such as blogs and tweets. For expansive, detailed content, do physical books have a future as a preferred format?

I’ve heard that bookstores in Germany are thriving. What are they doing that we are not?

To what extent should readers/participants be able to add to or revise digital content?

What about the intersection of the future of books and higher education – and how it will further change within the next decade?

What is the relationship between communally and informally generated content and concepts of intellectual ownership?

How is  narrative changing (in text and image) and who is in charge?

What is the best working definition of the word “book” as we move forward?

As a printer/publisher part of a virtual artists collective, how can I reconcile beautiful books (and fine craft) with e-books? Without losing sight of the history of books, or encouraging the attitude I’ve seen as a bookseller that the object-book is merely trash.

How will bookstores and bookselling change as the digital revolution proceeds?

How will changes in book technology be reflected in rare books libraries & special collections?

How will new forms of books/media change our way of perceiving literature/content?

Who will give digital books their form? Artists, designers, and craftsmen—or programmers and corporations?

What initiatives are being developed to protect the privacy of readers?

What are we losing about the experience of reading when we move from physical to digital artifacts? What about apps, robots, toys, physical devices that augment the reading experience?

What about the impact of e-books on the definition and future of the book as an artifact?

Is an enhanced e-book (embedded video, audio, etc.) still a book or something different? Will the reader ever come to expect that type of additional content as part of the reading experience?

How soon will ebooks be the majority of the published books?

In view of the increasing ease of self-publishing, what is in the future for traditional publishers?

What is the relationship with book conservation?

Are we romantic enough as a race to hold on to the physical paper book out of pure nostalgia?

Will the  hand-made book increase in popularity? How do artists disseminate their limited editions?

How will that change the kind of book or story that we want to read?

To what extent will books become interactive as print books increasingly give way to eBooks that allow for enhanced audio and visual components? Is an interactive book a positive development?

Curious to thoughts re the birth of a renaissance of fine/craft printing (ala Vale, Dove, Kelmscott, etc). Will the ‘death’ of the ubiquitous (and poorly designed/printed) book reopen the doors for the well-designed ‘object’ of the book…?

Are we currently suffering from a signal to noise problem in artist books?

How can e-books create innovative ways to give form to imaginary realms via audiovisual modes of storytelling?

How will/is the change in format of books/print journalism affect how we learn?

How will the DOJ antitrust suit affect the future of e-book pricing? What’s a practical and effective solution to digital piracy?How will libraries circulate ebooks, and will publishers start to work with them to provide access to all their titles?

How with publishing and distribution models change as self-publishing and e-first publishing gain legitimacy? How will the traditional role of publishers change in this new world? Will “book” mean something new?

Will poetry ever transfer to digital technology?

Is print truly dead?

How does the evolution of books affect scholarship and publication trends?

What’s iOS?

What is the future of libraries?

How long will print books survive?

What are ways that traditional publishing models can transition quickly to digital workflows? How can digital workflows be implemented more quickly?

I’m still learning about the history of the book, so I haven’t gotten far enough to think about the future. What about book arts and bookbinding?

What the collaborative and interactive opportunities will be?

How do libraries prepare for a transition from a tradition paper format to another?

When will scrolls return to common usage?

What about curating and providing access to digital objects? What will the future environments of libraries look like? How will the future of the book affect the artifactual value of the physical object? Does the digital book have value other than informational?

How will close reading be enhanced in the e-world?

For how long will print books survive?

How do you explain that if the book format of document has been around for hundreds years that it is not going to be obsolete any time soon?

From Constantinople to Silicon Valley: A Byzantine Approach to iBooks

In 1947, the art historian Kurt Weitzmann published his seminal text on Byzantine manuscript illustration entitled, Illustrations in Roll and Codex: a Study of the Origin and Method of Text Illustration. His text postulated and explored a fundamental shift in pictorial logic with the advent of the codex in the early Byzantine period.









As demonstrated by his reconstruction of a roll of the Odyssey from the Third Century BCE, Weitzmann concluded in his analysis that early codex illustrations originally adopted the in-line, ‘freize-like’ logic of the roll. He reconstructed the archetype of the Vienna Genesis as a witness to this change given that he perceived the extant copy as bearing vestiges of the previous scroll-based system of illustrations. Weitzmann’s conclusions and postulated models have been disproven by art historians repeatedly, particularly given his romantic philological approach that postulated lost archetypes for known typologies. However, Weitzmann’s work implicitly acknowledged that a radical rupture in production and visuality had occurred with the advent of the codex. His methodological attempt to bridge the roll and the codex itself bears testament to a desire for and respect of the change in medium that affects the production of images and also their reception, interaction, and conception within and as part of a text.

A similar shift becomes evident with the advent of smart phones and touchscreen tablets, such as the iPad, whose software design demonstrates a conflict between the book as a typological medium based on horizontal swiping versus the webpage’s vertical scroll.

For example, when accessing a PDF online on the iPad, via Safari, the PDF adheres to the scroll-based logic of the webpage. Here the individual pages of the PDF progress vertically up the screen.

However, when downloaded into iBooks, the PDF can only be viewed page-by-page and scrolled through horizontally as one would a book. Nevertheless, one does not necessarily “scroll” or swipe through a book per se.  The experience of a physical book engages a complex variety of sensual experiences as one touches and lifts the page, hearing the crinkling of the sheet and seeing the play of light on it as it makes its 180 degree rotation in space. Therefore, the iBook app experience is highly stylized, yet nevertheless acknowledges the horizontality of the reading experience.

After all, the iBook app homepage, if we can even call it that, is presented as a varnished wooden bookshelf, replete with texture and knots in the wood. One scrolls down the bookshelf just as one would roll one’s eyes down a bookshelf.

When reading an actual “book,” purchased through iTunes, the conflation of the digital and the codex experience becomes most pronounced as the iBook is replete with a cover, which peeks out past the margins of the pages, and these virtual pages animatedly fold across rather than just swiping past the user. The program makes a concerted effort to capture the complex experience of the book in this new medium. Museums and libraries before the iPad had already applied such simulacral viewing conditions for their digital collections. The British Library, for example, allows one to browse through select digitized manuscripts through a system that replicates the visual and sonic experience of flipping through the pages of their codices, whose gold illumination glimmers in the light as the page is turned. Nevertheless, the iPad’s viewing experience does not merely try to replicate the book, but also incorporates the expected benefits of digital browsing.

This book’s table of contents is hyperlinked for increased accessibility and there exists the option of utilizing a scroll at the bottom of the page for quick browsing. These techniques, and similar ones in other book-based apps, bear testament to the hybridity of media implicit in the iPad’s design and potential.

Apple, which prides itself on it’s user-friendly design deploys a gamut of mimetic, representational strategies in its iPad design precisely to mediate between media and their errant iterations.

The Notes app carefully mimics a yellow-notepad, originally deploying Comic Sans font as an allusion to handwriting. It imitates torn sheets, left from previous notes, and circling the note being edited with a textured, red-pencil mark — all this is set into a leather business-like binder.

Their Contacts app, which also represents a book, even cites the structure of the codex by depicting the address book as being perpetually opened to the center of a quire — the group of folios that are sewn together in the center and added together to form a book. This is made evident by the visible thread down the gutter of the open book.

The Calendar app, which again features a codex, does not feature the same open quire, but instead shows the book open always to another spread in a quire.  This can be discerned by the app’s depiction of the stress on the sheet of paper from the thread holding the text together.

These details may seem inconsequential since they are peripheral and lacking any direct function, nevertheless they instantiate a field of known practices and options for their user.

The Notes app, for example, not only articulates its usable areas and functions through the familiar space of the business planner and notebook, but also distinguishes itself from the relatively unremarkable Pages app. Pages presents the viewer with a typical, albeit reduced, word-processing system. Its mundane appearance speaks not to “bad” design, but rather to its ready comprehension in a digital medium. The Notes app partakes of a now “primitive” medium per se of yellow-pads and pens, which thus gives it a more impromptu, short-hand utility. Instead of a word program intended for the composition of large texts, the Notes app advertises itself as an on-the-go tool intended for the jotting down of quick, brief notes — a practice that until now was associated with pens and paper, rather than computers. These stylistic differences thus create a language and logic of use and application for these two apps.

The codex’s influence is not unintentional feedback or some vestigial trace of an older medium, but rather the active utilization of this prior language in order to make the new system readily accessible. Yet the iPad comes with its own unique visual language that causes its own feedback into such pre-digital technologies. One hears of the iPhone user who accidentally “pinched” a physical picture in an attempt to get a look closer. As I recently observed at a Barnes and Nobles, non-touchscreens (keyboard accessible computers) in public places sometimes have to be labeled in order to remind users to use the keyboard or merely be contempt with the information being broadcast. While Kurt Weitzmann’s focus on the change in illustration techniques from roll to codex was primarily geared toward questions of narrative and time, such an investigation leads me to ponder the changing epistemic foundations of the image and its resultant ontologies. In order to address this investigation, I wish to turn to Byzantine image theory and practices around icons as a crucial reference point. They too experienced the radical shift from roll to codex and likewise had to mediate between material and ethereal images, whose presence in the world structured itself more as an event rather than a materially bound form.

However, before investigating the Byzantine case I wish to first remark on the crucial foundation of the image in the nineteenth century when the medium of photography reworked the semiotic possibilities of the image much like the digital age has done for us.

In analyzing the representation through photography of the stock-character Pierrot by the French photographer Félix Nadar in the late-nineteenth century, art historian Rosalind Krauss focuses on the question of the photographic medium itself as capable of capturing the indexical trace of its image.  In analyzing the figure of Pierrot, Krauss writes:

[T]he costume of Pierrot worn by the mime becomes the white field into which cast shadows are thrown, creating a secondary set of traces that double two of the elements crucial to the image. One of these is the Pierrot’s hand as it points to the camera; the other is the camera itself, the apparatus that is both the subject of the mime’s gesture and the object of recording it. On the surface of the mime’s clothing, these shadows, which combine the conventional language of gesture (pointing) and the technical mechanism of recording (camera) into a single visual substance, have the character of merely ephemeral traces. But the ultimate surface on which the multiple traces are not simply registered, but fixed, is that of the photograph itself.

Krauss’s reading of Nadar’s image is as specific as it is general.  It exists within a longstanding discussion in modern and contemporary art’s history of medium-specificity and medium-reflexivity.  For Nadar’s image, the focus is on the trace, on the power of the photograph to capture, by the physical contact of light, the objects that it represents.  In our present, the notion of the trace, which was crucial to the nineteenth century’s conceptualization of the photograph, is supplanted by a cultural logic in which matter and form, image and original, are no longer prevalent models for conceptualizing the image.  There may still be a lust for originality, both creatively and materially, as that which is experienced by museum visitors who seek out both aesthetic and artifactual experiences, but in the realm of YouTube and iTunes, these technologies exceed such logics.

Marie-José Mondzain, writing in French, adeptly uses the term l’imaginaire to address the construction of Byzantine visuality in relation to the iconomachy, the Byzantine debates on images between the eighth and ninth centuries.  The “imaginary” in French, as her English translator Rico Franses points out, does not denote an opposition between the real and the fictive.  Instead, the term has close ties to the discipline of psychoanalysis where it encompasses the process of perceiving or imagining the world in images.  In her book, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, as the title suggests, Mondzain excavates a medieval, Byzantine origin for the contemporary conceptualization of images.  Unlike Mondzain, however, I employ the Byzantine image cosmology as a useful theory for comprehending the present’s image economy, rather than as a genealogically inherited trait or origin myth.  For the Byzantine world, the debate on the epistemological foundations for and ontology of the icon were central to the preservation of the Empire and its constituents — as it is arguably in our present where images not only structure social relations, but also religious and political action.  In conceiving the reproducibility of images and the very possibility of depicting the image of holy persons, particularly that of Christ, the Byzantines were led to consider the limits and potentialities of the image.  In order to answer whether it was proper to depict a divinity, it was necessary to investigate the image as a production of form through colors and consider what types of information could the resulting forms present, particularly in relation to a divinity that was uncircumscribable in mere matter.  The resulting thesis, building on the early Church Fathers, Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, was that the honor offered to the image is passed on to its prototype, as St. Basil suggested.  Thus, the image functioned as what Charles Barber has called a “directed absence,” presenting a conduit to the divine, rather than re-presenting the divinity.  As was constantly reiterated and enforced throughout the Byzantine empire, in order for this understanding of the image to function it required the perception of a separation between form and matter.

Like a seal pressed into the virgin wax, the image was constantly being impressed on different matter, but matter itself was only relatively partaking in the divine as long as the image was present.  The notion of the artifact that carries a trace inherent in matter was linked to the relic, a bone or belonging of a holy person, but not to the icon.  Today, images exist as archetypal codes, preserved in multiples on memory-sticks and servers.  At any given moment, this code is visualized on an iPhone or computer screen, which partakes of the image.  The image is both wholly embodied and wholly digital, its form may be circumscribed, but its digital existence is uncircumscribable. In Byzantium, Christ is the Logos, a Greek term that has no definite English translation, but spans a range of meanings, potentially translated as “word, utterance, or discourse.”  By virtue of the incarnation, the Logos is made into human form, an image, through the flesh of the Virgin Mary, whose virgin body is equated to the virgin wax on which a seal may be impressed and given its purity is able to embody itself without any other images interfering in its countenance.  Thus, the doctrine of the incarnation is the same as the doctrine of the image.  This identity is subsumed by the concept of the economy (oikonomia), often translated in religious studies as the “divine dispensation,” which addresses the incarnation and the creation of the image of Christ as one and the same: Christ is discourse partaking of flesh, but not limited by it.

Stripping these concepts from a definite theological argument, I argue that the contemporary image participates in a similar economy: a code incarnated in technology, but neither matter nor the image is confined by the other. The digital of the image stands in for the divinity of the Christ, while the iPad embodies the Virgin flesh in which the image is impressed. Unlike Krauss’s Pierrot whose body captures the projected indexicality of the shadow, the Byzantine image economy presents a body in whose flesh the archetypal image is incarnated.  This is an economy focusing on a mimesis that is not imitation, but making manifest.  It is not about representation, but about presentation without the indexical trace, returning the faith of presence to the network, to the reproducible image.  In this proposed model for our contemporary image economy the form is the digital code, the computer is the flesh, and from this combination emerges the image.  Therefore, this figurative and literal body becomes the unseen nexus of investigation, since it is the receptive body that is able to house the viral image and once that virus invades, the body fades in service of the faithful representation of the image through it.  Recently, touching upon similar issues, but not fully engaging with the Byzantine legacy, W.J.T. Mitchell’s Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present, argues for a parallel structure in the fear of cloning to the viral distribution of images, particularly those of terrorist acts.  Following September 11, Jacques Derrida paralleled the distributed and broadcast image of terrorism, to an “autoimmune disorder,” whereby the body’s own defenses attack itself. How does the notion of the viral fit then into our discourse on the traditionally materialized logos, i.e. the book?  How has the “book” as a formal entity been subsumed into the viral economy?

So far I have presented what I believe is a crucial nexus in understanding the radical effects of the image with the advent of digital technologies, particularly smartphones and touchscreen tablets. Byzantium because of the religious, social, and political motivations of the icon presents us with a robust body of evidence through which to articulate a working theory of the contemporary image’s foundations, while recent studies on viral images and terrorism demonstrate art history’s capability of becoming a political science — a sentiment which art historian David Joselit shares in his book on television and political activism, entitled Feedback, published in 2007.

On the Byzantine side of things, and as a Byzantinist myself, I would go as far as to argue that until the advent of digital, touchscreen media scholars have been unable to fully grasp the poly-sensory potentialities of the icon in the Byzantine Empire.  It is not surprising then that recent studies on Byzantine icons by art historians Liz James in 2004 and Bissera Pentcheva in 2010 have been the first to embrace the synaesthetic, sensual dimensions of the icon as key factors in its constitution. The haptic processes of Byzantine worship required the viewer to contemplate the icon, while touching, kissing, and embracing it — even awaiting for it to miraculously respond to the venerator’s entreaties. The iPad likewise requires the user to contemplate it, stroke it, and develop a kinesthetic language of gestures in order to utilize it.

It is precisely this sensual experience that was sold via the first iPad’s advertising campaign. This series of advertisements all featured casually dressed bodies utilizing the iPad in a variety of manners that featured its various tools.  In a typical Apple fashion, the iPad ads would often be displayed serially, thus conveying the gamut of possibilities offered by the new technology. The bodies were headless, it was the viewer that was placed in the position of the user as if proleptically playing with their new gadget in their encounter with the image.

The iPad 2, on the other hand, had only a couple of ads with little variation. This time there were no humans involved, only the product. This time Apple was not selling a new experience — but rather a better version of it.  The message was simple: “iPad 2 Thinner. Lighter. Faster. FaceTime. Smart Covers. 10-Hour Battery.” This advertising campaign retrieved into its rhetoric the previous well-known campaign through its prevalent use of comparatives.  The product was better, but the same experience was being sold.  Most recently, the iPad “3,” “new” iPad, or simply, the iPad, ad campaign has done the same thing, focusing on the high-resolution, “retina display” screen as its major selling point.

The touchscreen experience — which subsumes the “book” as one of its manifestations — has presented itself as a notable site of resistance, perhaps most recently embodied in the Twitter Revolutions of the 2011 Arab Spring.

On a street in New York several months back, I encountered an iPad (1) ad with the phrase “iHomeless” scribbled on it. This piece of graffiti plays with the distinctive “I” — a linguistic shifter — in Apple iTechnology branding that advocates the very personalization of experience which the iPad ad conveys. This scribbling on an advertisement for the latest gadget is a poignant reminder of poverty in light of excessive consumer consumption and commodity fetishes — particularly in a city like New York.  Moreover, however, it demonstrates the Apple brand and its technologies as a locus for image-based socio-political activism.

Following the invasion of Iraq and the Abu Ghraib Scandal, a series of viral posters emerged with the images of Abu Ghraib and soldiers that mimicked the then popular and equally viral color-and-silhouette iPod ads. The iRaq posters, as they were called, were interspersed among the Apple advertisement campaign as a form of viral resistance, a tactic which paralleled the Apple’s own strategies.

MADtv even had a skit that featured a Steve Jobs impersonator announcing a new Apple product, the iRack — and the upcoming, the “iRan” running sneakers — as a commentary on the US invasion of Iraq.

Thus, the book in its integration into this new media emerges as a site of resistance structured around an expanded notion of what constitutes a book — one that pushes past the material essence to various medial iterations. The sensual experience of the book has been formally and tactically abstracted into the logic and conception of a new medium for the logos.  The book, like the Ancient Greek and Early Christian Logos, can no longer be explained merely as “word,” but partakes of a formal, visual logic and cross a variety of media — it brings with it both a doctrine of incarnation and image-making.  This places the expanded field of the book as a crucial discursive and political space — and the historian and artist as crucial players in this nexus.


A version of this paper was presented at the University of British Columbia on 3 October 2011 as part of a conference entitled, “From Scroll to Screen: Translation and Reading from Ancient to Modern.” Roland Betancourt is a Doctoral Candidate and Teaching Fellow in the Department of the History of Art at Yale University. 

Two Directions for Material Books

I am a book artist who spent twelve years hand printing and binding a book entitled Pictorial Webster’s. I then spent a year with Chronicle Books making it into a trade edition that would sell for $35.00 and yet still retain some of the qualities of a finely printed book of yore. I have been on both sides of the physical book world. I am one of the very tiny publishers that is most concerned with making beautiful books using quality materials and bookbinding technique, allowing the price be dictated by time and materials. Not having an intermediary agent I worked directly with Chronicle and gleaned some insight into the continual march to the cheapest product by the larger publishers.

There is a segment of society that still craves a beautifully bound book, and this segment also tends to have a great deal of wealth. Much like the turn of the 20th Century when the linotype and monotype helped speed the mass production of books, they also spawned the Arts and Crafts movement and small publishers such as Kelmscott Press who published lavish, traditional books. Modern day publishers such as 21st Editions have capitalized on this same feeling that beautiful books are about to become extinct. (21st editions has even registered the phrase “The Art of the Book” as their own!?) I came to publishing from the angle of a book artist. Pictorial Webster’s was first a small run of 100 hand-printed, leather bound books that took me twelve years to produce and all of the copies have yet to be bound. I have noticed that I have made many more sales to private individuals than I have to institutions.

Because Pictorial Webster’s is such a visual book, it lives best as a physical book which accounts for its great sales as a trade edition. When I was ready for the mass produced book to be printed, I was in negotiations with two publishers. One was Chronicle Books, the publisher I thought from day one would be a good fit for selling an “Artist’s Book,” as they had published Griffen and Sabine, aunt Sally’s Lament, and other books that were way off the norm. I had also been approached by Melcher Media, a book packager in NYC. Melcher Medias lure was greater control over the final product. Mr. Melcher did his best to give me the impression we would produce the book using the most responsible production techniques and materials as environmental and economic concerns are important to me. I believe sustainability should be a concern for all disciplines. It is sad that many companies have been using paper pulp made from clearcut rainforests in Indonesia. I had made a decision that I would not print my book commercially if it was to be produced in China. My dream was to buy paper from the Mowhawk paper company which is responsible about using post-consumer paper and produces all of their energy with wind power. My ultimate printer would have been Stinehour press and perhaps use the Acme Bookbindery in the Boston area. I tried to convince the publishers that consumers who would buy my book would also be willing to pay more, but I heard about research that showed that there is a big cutoff at $30 that many book buyers will not cross. I began Pictorial Webster’s in 1996 and planned from day one to try to have a trade edition made. In those days Merriam-Webster had expressed interest in publishing the book and had given me the green light to find a printer that could do it for under $4 per book. (I was told they liked production costs to be 1/8 of list price.) Therefore I was sourcing materials and sending samples of the product to various printers and scouring the shelves of libraries and bookstores to see what was possible in commercial printing. Although there continue to be bright spots in commercially produced books, much of what I have experienced is depressing. At my first real meeting to discuss the production of the book with Melcher, it became clear that China was what they had in mind for everything. “Come on, get real,” was his response to my complaint. “You will never get this printed domestically. It’s never going to make money.” Thankfully, Chronicle delivered production in Canada. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best they could do. Few books are sewn in the United States, and many of the printers I had originally contacted to get quotes for printing the book had gone out of business, including Stinehour Press. One of the stumbling blocks for production in China it turns out was the cream colored paper I desired. At the time we printed Pictorial Webster’s, the only way to get off-colored paper in China was to have an initial print run with a crème colored ink! I wrote an article in Ampersand Magazine detailing my struggle to get my book produced in a way that I thought would make it a pleasing product. As a bookbinder I wanted my book to retain what I thought were the most important qualities of a book: good printing, a pleasing feel in the hands, and good design that works in a book. As much as I agonized, Chronicle was very good at making that happen. Unfortunately, though I thought I had convinced Chronicle Books that making a beautiful book would help drive sales. I bought a copy of their fifth reprint only to discover that it was shipped overseas to China! I had had an understanding with Chronicle that this would not happen. (Was it in the contract? I can’t recall.) I had given them .5% of my royalties, in fact, to help keep production local. The new book is not printed on the Environmental Fiber paper cover that we used for the first book, and the printing on the cover is no where near the quality of the original. . . . I will update this with news as this story evolves.

As much as I thought there was hope at some point for mass-produced books – I feel I’m agreeing more and more with William Morris. If you want a beautiful book, you may as well make it yourself. Most physical books for the trade will probably be more and more cheaply made while a very small segment of the publishers – folks such as David Godine will continue to make quality books in design and manufacture as there will continue to be a demographic that craves good books. And as Book Arts continue to flourish in college art departments, hand crafted, self published books will increase as well.

Non-anglophone worlds?

How about including, here, some resources based in France? For example:

* Gallica : ancient texts plus some not-so, manuscripts & incunabula & printed books & other things, all treasures-of-the-BN, and all digital & online now in several controversial and interestingly-European / non-US American ways —

* BnF / Bibliothèque nationale de France : this is the justifiably-famous old BN / Bibliothèque Nationale itself, radically-recast and not always comfortably, in its brand-new buildings & staffs & attitudes toward new technologies, prime example of a “digital library” —

* Musée de l’imprimerie, Lyon : these folks discovered the old Renaissance type-fonts, underwater where they’d been dumped into the Sâone river from the print shops along the rue Mercière which created the Incunabula Revolution — the Musée workshops use ancient machinery to teach modern printing and binding, and they know much about mise-en-page in le-digital too — and they’re in the city which gave us Sebastian Gryphe, and Etienne Dolet… that last burned at the stake on the Place Maubert in Paris, for his new-fangled notions, proof that these transition-in-media issues are taken seriously, and can be far more bleeding-edge & risky, than many people realize —
(Their english / l’américain page does not appear to be up, but I’ll be happy to translate…)

* Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon : a leading provincial city-library in France, like many of those one blessed with a large confiscation-révolutionnaire of ancient texts, manuscript & print & other, preserved in the provinces and so mostly saved from marauding Parisian mobs and radical-ideas-in-flux — ideal locale for quietly studying noisy revolutionary texts in their various media transitions —
(Again, happy to translate…)

* La FNAC : where France buys & sells its “books”, nowadays, digital and other — from its origins at the forefront of the modern revolt against the most recent Old Regime in French publishing, and so much-vilified by many — now on the ropes against the digital, and trying desperately to figure out what it all means commercially — France invented the Minitel, long before the “public” Internet, and now everyone in the country has an iPod & iPhone & iPad  & iMac too or is about to get one… iFrance… 🙂 —
(Ditto re. translating…)

The above list represents just the French mainstream, as well: they’ve always had an active media-underground, in addition — the placards, colporteurs, feuilletonières, cat-massacre people, avant-gardes of various types and eras…

There are plenty of experimental sites among the French nowadays, too: walking the lisière, between print media & digital — which appears to interest the conference and the others mentioned on the website.

There is really interesting work going on everywhere, in fact, internationally now, in online digital information — also some very interesting questions about how all this will or won’t scale-up, to international applications… including multilingual access but not just… social & political & economic & cultural questions as well… Kerala is not like Kansas, not at all… Information “wants to be free”, internationally too, and in languages other than english & l’américain — and everyone, Out There as well, still loves “books”.

So, the above are a few France-based suggestions for your very interesting site, and for your interesting ideas about maybe “rebalancing” the new & old media instead of “transitioning” them.


Jack Kessler

p.s. A general note & disclaimer about translation, tho: native-speakers rule!, in this… Pace fabulous exceptions such as Arthur Waley and W.S. Merwin, most human language translation doesn’t really work. Translation is an art, not a science: Waley’s is the most famous example, his “Madly Singing In The Mountains” being a phrase only a Bloomsbury gentleman like him ever would utter, never the 9th c. Chinese poet from whom Waley translated it, altho it fits the old Chinese poet perfectly.

So use GoogleTranslate, yes: but that is often more transliteration than it is translation — much as GoogleSearch is “data” search & retrieval but not yet really  “information” search & retrieval, as no less than Larry Page has told his troops.

The sites overseas offer English Versions, but these brave attempts usually are truncated, filled with howlers, and usually they are superficial dead-ends leading to sites filled from level II on down with strange-looking foreign stuff. When you run into that, however, think of all the Mongolians, Ethiopians, Burmese and residents of Bergerac who don’t even find level I homepages in their languages on our anglophone sites… much less instruction manuals… imagine troubleshooting using only a manual printed in Mongolian…

Best thing to do, then, is to partner with a foreign language native-speaker, online — easy enough to locate one, nowadays — you write to her/him in English, s/he writes to you in French — you’ll miss lots of nuances if you don’t, and French is nothing if not a language of nuance… ditto Chinese & Tamil & most…


The look of an argument

guest post by Bonnie Mak, University of Illinois


"How the Page Matters," design by Jimmy Luu (2011)
Title + first pages of "How the Page Matters," design by Jimmy Luu (2011)


How the Page Matters explores the different embodiments of a fifteenth-century text as it is translated into different languages and across manuscript, early print, and digital media. By investigating the ways in which the page of the “same” text was continually reconfigured for different audiences through time and technologies, I considered the ways in which materiality and meaning-making are always dynamically entangled. Furthermore, I experimented with how the physical instantiation of the book publication itself, including its cover, the layout, and typeface, could be used to embody my argument. Was there a way to argue using both words and matter?

"A Cabinet of Curiosity: the Library's Dead Time"The experiment with the book project led me to think more about the look of research, and to imagine alternative embodiments of an academic argument. To this end, I developed “A Cabinet of Curiosity: the Library’s Dead Time” with Julia Pollack, an exhibition that sought to embody the practices of the librarian. Each of the six sculptures in the exhibition was hand-crafted by the “librarian” to make evident her own role in the collection, classification, and curation of knowledge. The purpose of the show was to expose the manifold and complicated ways in which information is produced, processed, and circulated — not only in the book and in the library, but also elsewhere.

More images of the Cabinet are available here, and an interview with the artists is featured on the Library as Incubator Project blog.


Christian Bök’s Bibliomechanics

We are grateful to Christian Bök for contributing the first guest post to the Unbound blog. We will be featuring another post on his “Ten Maps of Sardonic Wit” next week!

Bibliomechanics is “bookish artware,” consisting of 27 Rubik’s cubes, stacked together into a block (3 x 3 x 3) so as to create the kind of pataphysical writing-machine described by Jonathan Swift in The Voyage to Laputa—”a project for improving speculative knowledge by […] mechanical operations” so that, by such a “contrivance[,] the most ignorant person […] may write books […] without the least assistance from genius or study.” Every facet of these cubes displays a white word printed in Futura on a black label so that, when properly stacked together, the cubes create 18 separate surfaces (6 exterior, 12 interior), each one of which becomes a page that displays a readable sentence (81 words long). Each sentence paraphrases a poetic theory about the machinic function of language itself. The reader can, of course, scramble each cube so as to create an alternative permutation, generating a new text from the vocabulary of the old text.


Bibliomechanics is a kind of 3D-version of Cents mille milliards de poèmes by Raymond Queneau, whose flipbook consists of 10 sonnets, in which corresponding lines can replace each other without altering the rhyme scheme or the lyric sense of any sonnet, thus permitting 10 trillion possible variants. An insomniac, reading one poem per second nonstop, requires about 317,000 years to complete such a work. A single Rubik’s cube, however, provides more than 4.3 x 1019 different permutations (albeit many nonsensical), and when we take into account all 27 cubes, this number increases by a factor of at least 27! x 627. An immortal, reading one page per second nonstop, might begin this book at the Big Bang, yet never hope to finish the text before the expiry of the universe itself. My book is perhaps more like a gizmo than a codex; however, the work does suggest that, no matter what its form, a book can still become a folding rhizome of unlimited dimension.

–Christian Bök




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