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.
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.
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.
Amaranth Borsuk and Gretchen Henderson (Listen here. Please be patient while the podcast loads.)
UNBINDING THE BOOK
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)
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.
RESHAPING THE BOOK
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)
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.
ELECTRONIC LITERATURE & FUTURE BOOKS
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)
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.
Follow our news on Facebook, or at http://jadedibisproductions.com
Debra Di Blasi, Founding Publisher
On Friday during the first panel, and particularly during its Q&A, there was a great deal of concern about the loss of haptic experience when we read electronically, the ways that archival research is changed by digitization, and where the book as an object (especially a beloved, sensuous object) is left as these shifts happen.
A few things struck me as odd about this conversation and the way it was framed. The first is the assumption that reading on an e-reader is not a haptic experience. It is; that is why when the iPad came out there were people rushing to the store to pick it up, hold it. It is also why so much time is spent considering how to adorn e-readers, do we want them to be nubbly, leather bound, or bamboo. Each person can make more choices about what they want their book to feel like now than they could thirty years ago. Of course, we don’t change the cover based on whether we are reading an electronic copy of Stephen King’s The Stand or an electronic copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (and I will grant that presents a problem, but perhaps not an unsolvable one).
This issue of the haptic is already being solved, bit by bit. As Reid-Cunningham noted, books might become more “boutique.” Nouvella, a small press in California prints small runs of novellas by emerging authors and offers those for a week as a “launch” and then continues to sell them as e-books after that. Their books are lovely objects. I adore the one I have. It is small, fitting into the back pocket of my jeans and has a butter smooth cover and lovely design. Also, it’s a signed first edition by an author whose career I believe in. Of course I’ll hang on to that! And I’ll encourage my friends to buy the ebook; the object, but not the content, can be boutique.
I do not worry about people falling in love with reading, or falling in love the objects associated with reading. I don’t worry about archives. Instead, I am amazed by the possibilities that digitization allows. To discuss this I have two examples, both of which show how easily the gateway is held open between the digital and the archival, paper page. In both cases, the haptic archival moment is expanded and made more accessible. When that gateway is open, and librarians, scholars, and writers work together the best things about each mode are preserved.
Recently, my partner went to visit the Maine Women’s Writers Collection at the University of New England in Portland Maine to see the papers of Margaret Mussey Sweat. Sweat wrote perhaps the first American lesbian novel, and the archive is not much visited. He spent a day and a half looking through her papers, and because his time with the archive was limited, he took pictures of many things with his iPhone. He digitized an archive that never had been before. And posted it a page of it on Facebook. Posting this one page on Facebook meant that there were probably twenty of his friends and colleagues working with him to figure out some spidery script.
Poet Jill McDonough hoards digitized primary sources and then shares them with her students. Here she describes just how transformative that experience is for the poems her students write and for her own writing. As a former student of hers, I can say that it makes me more, not less, likely to seek out the physical archive. She mentioned to me recently that there is a shelf of old anatomy books in the basement of the Athenaeum, and I want to be there now instead of writing this.
Friday morning, visiting the archive exhibit, the aesthetic choices of the past resonated deeply with me, in ways that their creators might not have been able to anticipate. They were just considering the priorities of their moment. Similarly, we can’t say what our aesthetic priorities will be in the future, but we’ll still have them. Reading will continue to be a thing we do with our bodies. Finding ways to, not just preserve, but also expand reading practices and haptic experience of the page can be one of the opportunities not just the anxieties of the book now.
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?
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 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?
It seems to me that the future of the book is here already — what remains is for us to figure out what to do with it.
The codex, a collection of pages presented in such a way that they can be accessed independently, is a mature technology, and an efficient way of encoding and storing information for a variety of uses. Even in the age of the ebook, the codex seems likely to have a long future ahead of it. Ebooks will replace codices in the contexts in which they are more efficient — supplanting cheap disposable paperbacks and magazines, taking over the self-publishing industry, capturing a large segment of the popular fiction market. Codices will continue to be used in the contexts in which their virtues are more important — low-power, long-term storage, easy sharing, easy random access, collectability, and display. Technical and legal advances will continue to increase the scope of ebooks, but they’re never going to supplant the codex entirely.
If you don’t believe me, consider the observed fact that vinyl records are back in the music industry in a major way. Although the economics and culture of music-publishing are not the economics and culture of book-publishing, the changes wrought in one are nevertheless likely to have parallels in the other. In a world where the ease of digital distribution allows content creators to self-fund the production of their work by selling limited-edition collectibles to their most dedicated fans, that very ease of distribution is a liability if digital media forms are to be the sole means by which creative works are distributed. The codex’s scarcity and irreproducability become key features of its utility.
I find it increasingly difficult to talk or think about “ebooks” as distinct from “books”, rather than as a subset. We have had words distinguishing different book forms for a while — audiobooks and comic books and picture books. A “book” is a Platonic object, words and pictures arranged in some particular order; a paper book is no longer the unmarked medium. I have read a book, whether I read it on a paper “screen” or a laptop screen or a phone screen or an ereader screen.
What interests me is when it ceases to be the case that a book reproduced on paper contains the same information as a book reproduced on a computer screen. As we increasingly read books through devices capable of reproducing not just words and pictures but music and video, we will begin to see these forms of media incorporated into our books, and into our concept of what a book is. Imagine a film textbook containing relevant clips of the films discussed, or a novel where each chapter also embeds the original song from whose lyrics its epigraph is taken. These are books just as surely as anything to which we might today give that name. As we increasingly read books through devices capable of more complex interactions than those admitted by the codex form, our books are going to come to integrate these interactions.
One of my favorite recent examples of this confusion is “don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story,” by Christine Love. In presentation, it is a visual novel, a form originally popular in Japan — a video game with a focus on text and mostly-static pictures where the player is periodically presented with choices of action or dialogue which affect the outcome of the story. “Don’t take it personally” is a relatively short story with a small number of branch points; much of what it does at the level of its framing narrative could be done in a straightforward, if expensive, fashion in the codex form. (Even the interactivity: remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books popular a decade or two ago?)
What couldn’t be reproduced without ruinous expense and effort is the game’s internal Facebook-like social network. Throughout the story, the characters are sending public and private messages to each other, both commenting on the framing narrative and providing their own narratives. The player character (and thus the player) is encouraged to switch context out of the framing narrative to keep abreast of these parallel narratives. The parallel narratives provide critical information which isn’t available in the framing narrative, and the framing narrative relies on and calls attention to this fact. (Multiple reviews have complained about being distracted by the constantly blinking notification icon for the in-game social network, which seems to me to be one of its goals.)
One of the game’s primary themes is the societal and cultural changes brought about by social media, and the ethics of using the information it provides. Given that we do not yet experience social media through paper books, presenting this story in that fashion would have lost the immersion provided by presenting it in the fashion that the characters experience it. The richness of the choices presented to the player could also not be easily represented in paper — each decision to read messages is a distinct choice, with implications for the player’s experience of the framing narrative. (One moment late in the game where choosing to read messages is a minor plot point drives home just how much the fact of that choice matters.) The ability to backtrack and follow other story branches, or replay the game making entirely different choices, enables the player to understand the effect their choices had (or failed to have). Even the incidental elements add to the story — the music in particular is well used to enhance the emotional impact of key moments.
I think that, if we are willing to accept a novel with embedded music or a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book as a “book”, then “don’t take it personally” is just as much a book. At the same time, “don’t take it personally” is a book embodying a story which could never have been presented with the same impact in the codex form. What interests me more than anything about the future of the book is what other stories exist like that. What stories can we now tell now in our new book forms which we couldn’t have told before? What stories can we tell now which we couldn’t even have imagined before? What stories will we choose to tell?
It’s going to be a very interesting future.
Kellan Sparver blogs about science fiction, writing, video games, and whatever else he finds interesting at KellanSparver.com.
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.
The bibliographic category referring to limited-edition, artist-conceived objects is a contentious one. In working on BOOKISH at MIT’s Rotch Library, taking a political position on the matter was inevitable. I chose the term “artist books” because that’s the term that’s used in the MIT Libraries’ Catalog.
Operating on a short schedule and with a limited body of materials I needed a ready-made working definition in order to get the job done. As much as I was hoping to avoid entering into the more contentious end of library science, I will admit that I have gained a certain fondness for the term “artist books.” I think it has something to do with the grammatical implications of the apostrophe.
The Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) offers four terms for “books made or conceived by artists:”
- artists’ books (preferred)
- artist’s book
- artists books
- artist books
Grammatically, each term offers a different statement on the relationship of the artist to the co-referenced book. The apostrophe in the term in question has been the subject of such fierce debate because its placement has a momentous impact on the meaning and applicability of the term. This, I believe, has more to do with grammar than library science. For example, the English novelist and poet Kingsley Amis, on being challenged to produce a sentence whose meaning depended on a possessive apostrophe, came up with three:
- Those things over there are my husband’s. (Those things over there belong to my husband.)
- Those things over there are my husbands’. (Those things over there belong to several husbands of mine.)
- Those things over there are my husbands. (I’m married to those men over there.)
I lack Mr. Amis’s wit, but bearing his example in mind here is how the the four terms offered by the AAT describe four different categories of book:
- artists’ books (a body of books whose authorship rests with a body of artists; the idea of artists as a type of author is primary)
- artist’s book (a book whose authorship rests with a single artist; the idea of artists as unique authors is primary)
- artists books (books by artists)
- artist books (a group of books, each of which is by artists)
I chose the last term on this list because my interest, as an art historian, is in how individual artists operate within the medium of artist books. By showing the diversity of these operations from in last 50 or so years, I hoped to provide an idea of what might be a part this rather nebulous category and what this group of objects might mean to people interested in the present and future of the book. Since what is on display is essentially coextensive with the Rotch Library’s collection of such items, I had the luxury of picking the term I felt best suited the objects. I’m sure if I was interested in, for example, maintaining a catalogue or in the prospect of having a term flexible enough to describe unknown future acquisitions I might have chosen differently.
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.
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…
– guest post by Julia Panko (University of California, Santa Barbara)
In the past several years, the concept of “touch” has become a strategic marketing point for digital devices, from the iPod to the Kindle. But how might “touch” matter as we think about the print book? How might tactility impact the book’s role as an information storage medium and reading platform?
Page scan from Google Books, capturing an image of the scanner’s fingertips touching the page:
When a reader touches a book, she leaves physical traces—fingerprints, crumbs of food, bent pages, pencil markings, etc. We touch digital devices when we read from them, of course, but these surfaces tend to be more resistant than paper to acquiring such traces. The haptic “data” that readers leave in books has forensic value: it can reveal information about a reader’s body, reading habits, emotional attachments, or favorite brand of coffee.
The three-dimensionality of the book also allows it to function as an archival space. A reader might accidentally leave a bookmark or a pressed flower between the pages. Or he might choose to keep significant objects in a book, such as photographs or letters. Print books are storage media in the sense that they contain textual information, but in cases like these, they also become material archives.
As books circulate among readers, acquiring annotations or simply traces of wear, they become sites of social exchange. As Virginia Woolf put it, “We like to feel . . . that other hands have been before us, smoothing the leather until the corners are rounded and blunt, turning the pages until they are yellow and dog’s-eared. We like to summon before us the ghosts of those old readers. . .”
Many annotations in books are social in nature. Readers might argue or agree with the author in the margins:
“The frame of mind in which a reader can address a book as though it were another human subject, and present, is one we must all recognize. It can be compared to the more often discussed dramatic illusion, our voluntary and habitual submission to the conventions of the stage. It is not that we are actually hallucinating, believing the actors to be the persons they represent, and us invisibly in their company. Nor does any reader believe the writer of the book to be speaking the words in it, and available for conversation. That fact does not prevent us from cherishing the illusion of intimacy, much as we do in the theater” – H. J. Jackson, Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books
Alternately, we might write an inscription in a book that we plan to gift to a friend or scribble notes in a library book. I have vivid memories of discovering a lively discussion in a library copy of an Agatha Christie mystery years ago: several readers had recorded their speculations about the murderer’s identity at various stages in the story, inspiring later readers to debunk these guesses and offer alternate theories. The book became a tactile record of a community’s interpretive debates.
Our awareness of tactility also factors into our appreciation of books as aesthetic objects. When Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, he spoke of the importance of his book’s design: “Those of you who’ve seen my book—whatever you may think of its contents—will probably agree that it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”
As we speculate about the future of the book, we must admit that it cannot compete with computers and e-book readers when it comes to sheer storage capacity. The register of touch, however, reminds us that information storage is not the book’s only affordance. Our experience of books as material objects is also meaningful.
Books produce tactile, visual, and even olfactory effects.
The range of sensuous experiences that books provide is perhaps one of the reasons that so many readers describe feeling emotionally attached to—touched by—their books.