What Are Books?

Curator's Note

Thank you, Elizabeth and Hollis, for organizing this discussion. Your title, “Books as Screens” is a terrific provocation. It recalls for me Jacques Derrida’s idea of the future anterior: “By carrying us beyond paper,” Derrida writes, “the adventures of technology . . . liberate our reading for a retrospective exploration of the past resources of paper, for its previous multimedia vectors.” That is to say, the unfolding of the futurological present, with its ebooks, Nooks™, and Vooks™ makes our past—makes the printed book—appear in heightened relief, as a heterogeneous and dynamic phenomenon in need of careful study. No surprises there: The history of the book as a scholarly sub-specialization has of course flourished in this “late age of print,” if I can grab a phrase from Jay David Bolter via Ted Striphas. I should emphasize, I’m not trying to relegate the printed book to the past or to its deathbed. Printed books have been wrongly declared dead or dying so many times before that I think we can be completely confident of their survival, forever undead (see Pricilla Coit Murphy’s “Books Are Dead, Long Live Books”). What I do want to point out is that printed books have gotten so much more complicated lately, as the question, “What is a book?” in effect gets broached anew by every next ebook platform and ebook application. The ontology (that is, the “What is?” question) of printed books continually shifts and slides for me, remade again and again by all of the ways that people use printed and digital forms as well as by the ways they create, buy, and sell them. Printed books are portable: I knew that, of course, but I understand portability so much differently now that I see people on the subway reading downloads on their iPhones or their Kindles. Printed books are commodities: I knew that too, naturally, but the recent price war among Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Target has provoked my thinking about culture as a loss leader. Finally, printed books are somehow (well, duh) printed. Yet every time I come across a scanning technician’s fingers accidentally self-digitized in Google Books, it makes me wonder about the attenuated chain of individuals and instances that must bring any textual information before my eyes. This video falls back uncritically on the idea that book equals novel, but its terrific animation effects help to push the "What is?" question.




How fantastic to come back to the book's materiality, Lisa -- I love that video -- but to see that materiality literally animated, its own narrative transformed by other media forms into something beside (or besides) itself. I wonder, though, about the extent to which this video supports the argument I've heard a good bit lately -- that the printed book as we have long known it will of course survive, but will survive precisely in those niches that privilege materiality, as, for instance, the artist's book. Will the book-as-vehicle-for-information become increasingly digital, while the book-as-tactile-experience remains in print? What kinds of pressures would such a shift place on publishers, authors, and booksellers?

Hi Kathleen -- Happily I think the functions of books are so varied and so multiple that there will always be plenty of need for the affordances that printed books offer and the ones that ebooks do. Nor do information and tactility always work as separable altermantives. You're right that books-as-information seem to be headed on line. Think of Wikipedia. But there are plenty of occasions when digging a bit of information out of a printed book is simply easier and quicker. (Confession: I still use a paper dayplanner for this reason, though judging from the slim pickings at Staples this year, I may be the only one.) Indeed, "digging out" is only one of the important things we do with information. As something of an absent-minded professor, I'm always trying to find ways to take in as well as dig out: I mean, I am always struggling to get information to stick inside my head, and as far as stickiness goes it's the tactility of paper pages and pencil marks that works best.

I love the questions you pose for so many reasons, Lisa, and I think it’s spot-on to note how, as the venues where a book’s content might be retrieved multiply, so do the ontologies of the book itself. However, what really sticks with me from your post is your image of the book “forever undead.” This idea of the book as a sort of zombie seems particularly apt for our contemporary moment, when so many popular culture products seem fixated on apocalyptic scenarios wherein even remaining life appears to function in the realm of the undead. But then, as the New Zealand book council video shows so exquisitely, sometimes the animation of the inanimate can have beautiful and even evocative results, conjuring up the book object as a spot where imagination and form collide. Of course, the reality of the material book’s fate probably lies somewhere between these two diametrical scenarios, but I nonetheless appreciate the notion of undead books calling out for scholarly attention.

A wonderful post, Lisa, and a perfect captstone for the week. I want to riff off of your point about the portability of printed books and how new technological platforms render that aspect of them problematic.  It's intriguing to me how, on the one hand, so much of what we think we know about what printed books are is in fact relative -- relative, that is, to other technologies that happen upon the scene.  On the other hand, I'm also intrigued by how there are persistent problems that dog printed books throughout their history -- claims about their portability being one of them.  I can't remember whether it's in Eisenstein, Darnton, or Febvre & Martin, but one of them talks about how, up until the late-19th century, it was common to ship unbound books to bookstores as a way of reducing their weight and hence to minimize shipping costs.  There's a possible claim to be made here about how Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers are not so much problematizing the physical matter of printed books as much as they're offering "solutions" to this longstanding issue.  But maybe that's just a chicken-egg question.

But then, as the New Zealand book website design council video shows so exquisitely, sometimes the animation of the inanimate can have beautiful and logo design even evocative results, conjuring up the book object as a spot where imagination and form collide.

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