What does the history of the book tell us about the book’s future? What do 20th-century book-arts traditions make possible for 21st-century digital texts? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Amaranth Borsuk. This present conversation focuses on Borsuk’s The Book, part of the MIT Press’s “Essential Knowledge” series. Borsuk is a scholar, poet, and book artist working at the intersection of print and digital media. She is the author of Between Page and Screen (a digital pop-up book of poetry), and recipient of an NEA Expanded Artists’ Books grant for the collaboration Abra (a limited-edition book and free iOS app that recently received the Turn on Literature prize). She has collaborated on installations, art bookmarklets, and interactive works, and is the author of five books of poetry. Borsuk is an assistant professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell, where she also serves as Associate Director of the MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics.
ANDY FITCH: Your preface situates books not just on an anthropological-historical timeline, but on an experiential trajectory foregrounding books’ foundational role in the development of present-day human beings. The Book presents the book as one of “the first playthings we encounter” (with that plaything providing an encapacitating, multi-sensorial source of “contrasting colors and bold patterns…to stimulate vision,” of “contrasting textures to activate touch”), suggesting that readers and writers might never fully depart from those early intense attunements to bookish experience — as not so distinct from realms of identificatory immersion/incorporation more typically associated, say, with religion, magic, mom and her body. And so, from the start, your own distinctive lived vantage on intellectual biographies of the book stands out as worth discussing. This project’s preface sums up your own subject-position quite succinctly, as “a poet, scholar, and book artist working at the intersection of print and digital technology…long…fascinated by the book as a malleable medium for artistic inquiry and by writing technologies as spurs to authorship.” Could you describe how coming at the study from that particular personal perspective shapes this contribution to broader historical/critical/artistic conversations about the book, and how it helped you to shape this specific volume’s linear (but not afraid of interruptions), lucid (but not afraid of desire-infused digressions), propulsive (but recognizing so-called anachronisms lingering productively alongside each other) march across roughly five millennia of writing?
AMARANTH BORSUK: My own interest in the book as a technology is deeply embedded in my creative practice, starting with my study of letterpress printing and books arts when I was in graduate school (not as part of my academic studies, but as a side practice that kept me engaged with material craft while doing the intellectual labor of the PhD), and continuing through my more recent work on mediated approaches to reading. When I was at USC (writing my dissertation on modernist poets and their relationship to writing technologies, while also working in the letterpress lab at Otis College of Art and Design), I became interested in the question of the relationship between page and screen — two interfaces I found myself using regularly in my research and creative practice, but which pop culture was telling me were at total odds with one another. This concern led to my collaboration with Brad Bouse on a book of augmented-reality poems, called Between Page and Screen, that unpacks their relationship through an epistolary romance, one which unfolds only when the reader opens our printed book in front of a webcam.
The process of making Between Page and Screen was truly an investigative practice in which my research into etymologies of the words “page” and “screen” revealed that, though they might appear at odds with one another, they in fact share myriad connections embedded in their very names. But the greatest revelation of that project for me was just how performative the act of reading is. As someone who had studied feminist and poststructuralist theory, I recognized that the book gets shaped by its reader, but the reality of how much of a book’s meaning arises from the moment at which we encounter it physically didn’t come home to me until I beheld my own body on screen, holding open a book and reading a text that would only stay fixed as long as I cradled its pages. Seeing other readers interact with Between Page and Screen fundamentally changed the way I approach writing, with an eye toward the reader’s engagement and a desire to foreground the material qualities of the reading interface we tend to take for granted. So for me, “essential knowledge” about the book must account for the interplay of form and content that happens each time we read — whether we are looking at a 15th-century book of hours or a pulp paperback.
Having experimented with many different book forms in my book-arts and interactive-media practice, I’ve come to this present subject from the perspective that, to understand what a book is, we have to reckon with the fact that the book had many forms before the codex form now so familiar to us, and that our relationship to the book has been naturalized and commodified to such a degree that we no longer recognize books as having any materiality at all. To know what books are and understand where they might be going, I argue, we must see the book’s body again, and think about the ways that even digital reading interfaces remain material, embodied, and performative — shaping us as much as we shape them. The Book uses the work of book artists as an essential point of reference because their work brings the book’s body back into focus by defamiliarizing the familiar object or reifying tropes about how books function.
Your study definitely directs us away from any fixed, unexamined assumption of what “the book” must be, preferring a kaleidoscopic account that can show many among the infinite possibilities of what a book might do. But for present purposes, how precise could we get on a working definition of the book, for instance by provisionally differentiating between “the book” as abstracted idea versus specific book copies as discrete objects in the world, and/or by cataloguing some of the book’s characteristic or exemplary functions (say of efficient information storage and easy information retrieval), and/or by outlining how the book’s phenomenological/relational/sociological/epistemological/philosophical circuitry helps to shape “the very nature of thought itself” (as the book prompts, structures, extends specific modes of human expression/reflection, and as certain pressing forms of human expression/reflection restructure possibilities for the book)? However you see fit, could you give us the book on how The Book goes about figuring the book?
First and foremost, this study acknowledges the slipperiness of the term “book,” which most of us use to describe both object and content. When we ask someone if they have read a book, we’re generally not thinking about a particular edition, but rather the text itself. My process of figuring out what a book is here takes four chapters, and traces a loose narrative that involves: first diving into the history of the book’s changing forms preceding the codex; second considering the ways the book’s mechanization separated its form from its content; third recounting the ways this shift sparked a rebellion on the part of poets and artists in the 20th-century, who begin making artwork in book form that draws attention to and exploits the material affordances of books; fourth turning to how mass digitization makes the book’s body both disappear and reappear at the same time, by literalizing the notion of the reading interface (books have always been interfaces, but we adapt to them and they adapt to us quickly enough that we forget this fact). Object, content, idea, and interface: that is the four-chapter structure by which The Book figures the book.
At first I develop a working definition of the book that treats it as a portable information-storage and information-retrieval device — a broad enough category to encompass clay tablets, khipu, bamboo jiance, and myriad other forms that both precede and follow the codex. This can’t, however, be the perfect definition, so my volume seeks to bring in as many voices as possible to weigh in on what books are (perhaps most properly defined by how books work). Pull quotes strategically placed throughout the volume provide alternate perspectives from scholars and book artists whose writing has shaped my thinking about the book. Due to space limitations, I could only fit about 30 voices into the text, yet I feel strongly that the book is a living artifact we can understand better through a sort of cubist approach to seeing it from multiple angles. So I have recently started an ancillary project to ask scholars, writers, and artists what is the/a book? and to publish their answers at t-h-e-b-o-o-k.com. I have collected 100 so far, and with each one I receive I have a better and stronger feeling not just for the present, but for the future of the book.
Here could you also outline your decision to depart from any teleological story of the book’s ever-increasing contribution to civilizational progress, or any “death of the book” approach declaring the book’s definitive displacement (say by radio, TV, film, audiobook technologies, or, of course, by present-day digital media)? Could you take us through the thought process by which treating the book as an ongoing cultural-historical negotiation (regarding, say, prevailing conceptions of authorship, art, economic production, audience participation) might lead to Frederick Kilgour’s conception of a series of “punctuated equilibria,” with seemingly discontinuous technologies of the book (“tablet and scroll, scroll and codex, manuscript and print, paperback and e-book”) existing side-by-side rather than eclipsing each other (and with such historical unevenness perhaps most acutely crystallized by the dynamic status of the book today, with texts potentially appearing in so many different media forms all at once)?
I started the project with a strong desire to avoid a presentist perspective that sets up early books simply as precursors to this current moment, because that perspective fails to acknowledge the power, significance, and validity of preceding book forms. Similarly, I’m highly skeptical of any narrative of improvement or perfection, because digital media are not simply neutral interfaces providing greater accessibility to text — these interfaces are embedded in power structures and in a capitalist system that tries to gloss over the ways they restrict our ability to intervene into those interfaces. I do want to acknowledge the ways mediation can improve accessibility for certain readers (through tools like DAISY text-to-speech, and the ability to alter the type size and contrast of an e-book), but I don’t want to set up digital technology as some kind of perfect solution to the question of portable reading technologies. I hope, instead, to show that at every point in the book’s development, it has offered a handy format suited to the needs and material capacities of the communities in which it arises. It makes sense that the Mesopotamians would develop a book technology from the material they had in abundance: clay drawn from the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, a material whose use they had developed extensively for architecture and crafts. Likewise, scrolls of bamboo and silk provide wonderful materials for early Chinese books, because the cultivation of these materials already was so advanced. By extension, I don’t think of an Etruscan wax tablet, say, as an imperfect codex. It could be inscribed and erased. It could be annotated, and it was portable. It served the needs of its users.
I like Kilgour’s notion of “punctuated equilibria” because both history and lived experience tell us that these forms don’t simply give way to one another on a tidy developmental timeline. The clay tablet and papyrus scroll were used side by side for two millennia, because they served the needs of different communities and different readerships. Likewise the scroll and tablet overlap, as do the scroll and codex. Even though e-readers make it possible to carry a whole library of texts within a device as slim as a poetry collection, plenty of people still opt to buy paperbacks and hardbound books, sometimes using e-books for research and paperbacks for their manga collection, or e-books for their romance novels and hardbound books for school texts — any number of combinations. Readers are finding the interfaces that allow the kinds of engagements they want with particular texts, and there’s no reason to believe that portability is the only factor shaping these decisions about what and how to read.
Following the focus of your present study, my questions likewise will focus primarily on a book tradition emerging in Renaissance Europe and continuing to present-day Anglophone digital media. But which aspects of Mesopotamian innovation with the clay tablet, Egyptian cultivation of papyrus, Chinese invention of bamboo jiance and paper and type, Inkan traditions of the khipu (or any other traditions you want to describe) would you especially have enjoyed exploring more here?
If I had had more space (as it is, my volume pushes the upper limit of this MIT Essential Knowledge series’ length), I would have liked to have delved into Mesoamerican codices, which include painted pictographic writing on folded barkcloth, animal skin, and other plant fibers. It’s a complex narrative that really reflects the role of conquest in shaping the book. Because the codex form was so deeply ingrained in Renaissance consciousness as the medium for the dissemination of ideas, Mesoamerican media forms were denigrated or destroyed as part of the colonial enterprise. Conquistadors destroyed the Aztec books they found, considering them pagan documents. They encouraged the Aztecs to rewrite these histories for a Spanish audience, using European language and hieroglyphic writing in concert. The resulting works took more traditionally Eurocentric forms, like the codex and scroll. This Eurocentrism also helps to explain why colonizers didn’t dig deeply into the Inkan khipu or try to understand its workings — a tremendous setback to contemporary scholars. The khipu was seen as inferior to the teleologically more “developed” form of the written word and bound book, and many khipu were simply destroyed, with little thought given to this highly developed textile form of information encoding.
From your project’s opening page onwards, the codex takes on particular significance. Since, again, one might unreflectively conflate “the book” and the codex as equivalent concepts or objects, could you here present the codex as one distinct type of book: a handy, human-scaled format fluidly combining functional possibilities for sequential reading and for random access; a deliberately differentiated cultural product departing from Hebraic scrolls in favor of emergent Christian narratives; an intimate companion well-suited to wide-ranging devotional practices across cultures and epochs, from post-medieval “books of hours” to Frank O’Hara’s “heart in my pocket” lunch poems; a distinctly dialogical engagement (at least compared to scrolls, tablets) providing well-ordered space in the margins for further commentary by experts and/or by the reader herself?
You just listed some of the codex’s most important affordances — all of which have contributed to its staying power as an efficient readable and writable interface for the dissemination of ideas. The contemporary codex (as a stack of pages bound on one side and encased between covers) helps us find what we are looking for through tables of contents, indices, page numbers, running heads, and the like. It offers margins for our commentary (Renaissance readers took great advantage of this), and it offers a series of openings into which a bookmark or dog-ear can be inserted to hold one’s place. In so doing, the codex offers us opportunities to mis-use it too: as a container for keepsakes pressed between pages, and as a space to doodle, daydream, or talk back to the author. The codex makes its identity known on the bookshelf by presenting a spine that includes a title and author’s name, and when we pull it down we know which side is front or back because we find the title again on one side and a barcode or perhaps blurbs on the reverse. All of these techniques, though natural to us now, developed over time and in response to shifts in readership from monasteries to the academy, and from a wealthy elite to a mass audience. And many of the things we take for granted about the codex are not universal features (the direction in which the text is printed, for instance, will depend on the language in which the book is written, as will the way the author’s name and title are presented on the spine).
All of these features are paratextual — they aren’t part of the work’s “content,” yet they indelibly shape our reading experience. Some scholars argue that these paratexts themselves define the book, situating it as something we identify as “book” in a way we might not recognize a collection of blank pages or a pocket calendar as a “book,” even when these are bound codices. If we think about these elements as packaging the book for us, then it’s easy to see how other shapes for the book are possible, and other definitions that don’t adhere to codex form. Even though the codex is an exceptionally handy format, it isn’t always the ideal one. If, for instance, a work relies on enabling its readers to view multiple parts of the text simultaneously, a scroll or accordion is far more accommodating than the two-page spread. And if, as is sometimes the case these days, a text includes video and audio material, then a tablet or website allowing multimedia content is better suited to our needs than a bound and printed book.
It’s also worth pointing out that previous book forms were likewise sized to the body of the writer and reader, and likewise the reader learned to use his/her body to navigate the text. Most clay tablets were smaller than a cell phone and fit comfortably in one hand, for instance. And the papyrus or parchment scroll, though larger, could be unrolled with one hand while rolled with the other, revealing a single, accessible column of text at a time. And just as tables of contents and indices developed with the rise of the academy, in response to scholars’ needs, makers and readers of these book forms developed their own finding aids — including an incipit announcing the work at hand, and rubrication to highlight important passages.
In terms then of the codex book’s historical emergence, could we address some specific social configurations that this book form tapped and eventually reshaped? I found fascinating, for instance, your account of the historical pivot from post-Hellenic monastic literary traditions (operating amid oral reading cultures, producing continuous scripts absent of spaces between words, absent of casing, absent of most punctuation, thereby indicating the text’s destiny to be read aloud, to a community, perhaps a brotherhood, or at its most expansive a network of monasteries) to Renaissance-era inventions of a silent, potentially more solitary reading practice — still public in its own way, of course, given this era’s efflorescence of constructive free-flowing idea exchange. Here, for example, any nostalgia we might feel for preceding oral communities gets mitigated by the fact that communitarian readings might not differ so much from authoritative/authoritarian readings. Here Protestant emphases upon the individual’s direct relation to divine text, further personalized when printed in the vernacular, also come into play. But could you just describe, however you see fit, what you find most compelling about socio-phenomenological transformations the printed codex here helps to bring about?
For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of reading’s privatization (which really democratizes the word) is the way this leads to the commodification of the book. With literacy and the ability to study text comes greater demand for texts to read, and thus both a flourishing of literature and the gradual development of a book trade that seeks to make a luxury item into a commodity. The book doesn’t stop being a social space when it gets privatized, but that sociality changes shape, for instance with the practice of many Renaissance readers keeping a commonplace book — where quotations from many texts live side by side, in a dialogue that also serves as a record of one’s own intellectual development.
I think, too, of the way reproduction leads to a boom in reading and a rise in libraries in the Victorian period, with publishers and authors finding ways to capitalize on the sharing of books: producing triple-decker novels that could be bound in three parts (so that multiple readers could enjoy a book simultaneously), or distributing books in periodical form to make each installment affordable (and again shareable). Mass production eventually makes books lightweight, inexpensive, and portable enough that they become highly shareable, and even disposable by the time we reach the paperback revolution — with books for sale in subway stations and on grocery-store racks. Shareability might be one of the printed codex’s best affordances. It is deliciously easy to hand one to a friend and say “I loved this book and I think you will too.” Portability and shareability have been hallmarks of the codex from its inception — when the codex really took root as the format for distributing early Christian texts, because it was portable enough to be passed clandestinely. This is one of the chief complaints I hear about e-books. A purchased e-book isn’t transferrable in the same way my paperback copy of To the Lighthouse is. I can scratch out my name inside the cover and write a personal note, then hand it over to someone else to enjoy.
We just jumped basically into the present, but should we linger a bit more, as your own study does, on technical innovations in print production from the Gutenberg era onwards? Amid your account of this dynamic historical acceleration, I especially appreciated again your resistance to any streamlined tale of progress, your dilations upon Gutenberg and his peers designing then casting their fonts in molten metal, upon “uppercase” letters getting their name from the drawer in which early typesetters kept them, upon many navigational aids that seem inherently reader-friendly really just emerging as manufacturer-focused innovations (such as page numbers making it much easier for bookbinders to sort through stacks of printed sheets). We can pause on any of those details, or we could address more broadly your project’s direct appeal not only to authors, readers, scholars, but to bookmakers. How would you describe that engagement and identification with the bookmaker as helping to drive this study? And/or, with luminaries like Gutenberg and Aldus in mind, could you articulate any implicit call here for us to return to a fused array of writing, reading, scholarly, and book-designing/-making/-producing practices as one idealized conception of what it might mean to be “literary” (with the bookmaker the figure most often left out of that conception)?
I do spend a significant portion of this book looking at artistic practices that meld authorship and production. Gutenberg interests me partly because he didn’t write a word of the text he is famous for — the 42-line Bible printed with his press, ink, and movable type. But each of the early printers you mention made the design of the page central to their conception of the book. Aldus chose to issue his classics without any commentary, in handy-sized volumes meant to allow readers to enjoy these works unencumbered. He wanted to create beautiful, simple publications, pleasing to the eye as well as accommodating to the hand — because he thought this would make the ancient writers whose work he so loved more accessible to his contemporaries.
And while Gutenberg and Aldus didn’t write the texts they produced, a number of subsequent book innovators played the roles both of originator and fabricator, refusing to denigrate craft to creation. Mallarmé is an essential figure here, since his conception of Un coup de dés encompassed not only writing this long poem, but also envisioning its careful arrangement across each two-page spread as central to the work’s meaning. Likewise, we can’t talk about the book without mentioning William Blake, whose frontispieces call him “The poet and printer” in order to emphasize the fact that he undertook every aspect of his work’s production (save binding, left to specialists so that collectors of Blake’s books could give their home libraries a unified look).
I find bookbinding and artists’ books so useful in thinking about what the book might be or do because these practices help us see the materiality of books as an essential constituent of their meaning, rather than a secondary appendage. In the words of Fluxus artist and publisher Dick Higgins: “an artist’s book could be music, photography, graphics, intermedial literature. The experience of reading it, viewing it, framing it — that is what the artist stresses in making it.” I like how that definition reminds us that a book is an occasion, an experience, a performance, and not a static thing. It isn’t simply a text bestowed on a reader by an author (or perhaps, all too often, it is).
It seems to me that most e-book publishers currently see the book this way — as “content” to make available through devices, but not so much as an experience to be had by a reader. In doing so, they forfeit design in the interest of text that can flow accessibly into any interface, and ignore the distinct capabilities of digital media (like sound, animation, touch, geolocation, all of which can be used to create dynamic reading experiences). If The Book offers any kind of “call,” it calls for a closer attention to what this medium itself can do, and how it can shape storytelling. In the final chapter, I consider some app-makers who have embraced the affordances of tablets to create truly new and beautiful reading experiences — the kind of thing I look forward to seeing more of.
Here again I wonder how much this particular history of the book finds itself shaped by your own personal interests and emotional/aesthetic/intellectual/labor-hour investments in book-arts traditions. And of course Johanna Drucker’s scholarly/curatorial/hands-on-practical precedent stands out, with her formulation of the artist’s book as a “zone of activity” (creation, dissemination, reception included) foregrounding: collaborative engagement, institutional critique, alternate means of production and distribution, dematerialized self-referentiality highlighting the idea of “the book” even while disrupting conceptions of the book as transparent container of “content.” And your own reflections on how the artist’s book uses its content to interrogate its form (and vice versa) provide an especially instructive paradigm for thinking through historical continuities all the way to future digital explorations of how books will communicate and how we will read. So before we even get much to specific exemplary book-arts practitioners, could we again take an innocuous-sounding introductory line from your project’s preface (the imperative that we must think of books “as objects that have experienced a long history of experimentation and play”), and discuss how that perspective might align your study with and/or distinguish your study from parallel histories of the book? Or for a much more minuscule question, do you, like me, hesitate every single time on where to put the apostrophe in the “artist’s book” phrase (singular or collective, from an artist or for artists)? I notice you vary it at least in the draft I have.
I certainly do hesitate over that apostrophe, but any variety in the placement should only be based on whether I’m using a plural possessive or a singular one — on how many artists are involved in the making.
More generally, my hope is that this book-arts orientation toward experimentation and play can offer some touchstones for certain kinds of interactivity we tend to associate only with the digital realm. Artists’ books provide some wonderful examples of ways that the book has always been, say, a cinematic space, or has always had the capacity to create virtual realities. So I do draw some examples from book history, including early pop-up and lift-the-flap books, or the Mutoscope as an early cinematic flip-book form, or unusual bindings like the dos-a-dos (back to back) and cordiform (heart-shaped) books that put their structure and their content into dialogue.
When you mention putting book structure and content into dialogue, I definitely do think of Blake and Mallarmé — and also of Ed Ruscha circulating his serialized photographic books outside conventional gallery confines, incorporating deadpan deployments of the book’s paratextual norms (title page, typeset, etcetera) to confound spatial/temporal dimensions all the further, questioning again what it means to read. I realize I’ve addressed all white men, but could we here push beyond those classic points of reference to give some more recent exemplary models, say, of bookworks projects calling attention to the book’s material production, of anti-books refusing the book’s conventional functions while renegotiating its form, of recombinant books complicating perceptual dimensions while returning attention to our imminent interface with the book?
The white masculinity of this particular lineage really bothers me, but I do feel it belongs to the category of “essential knowledge” about the history of artists’ books. I tried to include queer bookmakers, women, and artists of color in my examples as well, but I do talk about all of those guys. I am really interested in what you are calling “anti-books,” or books that refuse reading. Ulises Carrión uses that term, which I consider both exciting (in that is conjures up a subversive kind of book-destruction), but also somewhat problematic (in that it seems to suggest that a destroyed or altered book isn’t a book any longer). Books have always reserved the right to remain silent, and done so in powerful ways, wresting censorship from the censorious, and using this silence to make a point — whether witty, as in the case of the black page in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, or more serious.
I deeply admire the way book-artist Alisa Banks uses silence in her series Edges (from the late 2000’s). Each volume is a found and altered hardbound book whose signatures she has bound along the fore-edge by crocheting them shut with hair extensions in traditional African hairstyles like cornrow, lace braid, and thread wrap. These volumes, displayed on their backs with their pages fanned out above them, become faces with crowns of hair, reminding us that the book’s body has a head and headband, and that a book itself is often a model of a mind in action. Braided shut, the text refuses access, a gesture we can read as commentary on the way intolerance further silences marginalized people. But we can also read that silence as a refusal, a protective gesture that allows the text its privacy, its intimacy, its individuality. Banks created these works in response to political debates about immigration at the time, and they continue to feel extremely relevant a decade later.
I mentioned your acute investments in book-arts practices. Other personalized reference points likewise stand out, at least to a friend reading your book. For example, even as architectural prototypes for the book (with, say, bookmaking terminology adopting terms like “frontispiece,” with some early books’ printed frames “designed to look like a portico or a building’s façade,” evoking the “vast intellectual space within,” I personally recall your own lived desires when arriving in new cities to check out new buildings (and especially museums). Or I mean to point more generally here to a desire spectrum quietly traced across The Book. Your concluding return to a concrete depiction of the embodied reading act, “arising in the moment of reception, in the hands, eyes, ears, and mind of the reader,” might not specifically mention affect, desire — but could you address how your own imaginative/desiring relation to the book has found itself enhanced, expanded, perhaps further refined, perhaps increasingly self-reflexive, as you’ve lingered upon King Demaratus’s encryptions, and papyrus’s water-soluble erasures, and Aldus’s clarified articulations of the page, and Renaissance printers designing “ever more enticing entryways,” and itinerant 16th-century peddlers hawking chapbooks? This may sound like an overdetermined reading, but a line like “The codex, like us, has a body, and to know it, we must understand its anatomy” strikes me as a classic alibi for eros-driven investigative pursuits.
To be completely honest, I loved researching this book in part because I am not a book historian or a textual-studies scholar. My scholarly background is primarily in 20th- and 21st-century poetry and digital literature, but my artistic practice is embedded in book production and publication. So it was a wonderful experience to spend time learning and thinking more deeply about histories of the material book.
I am wary of overly sentimentalizing the book’s materiality. I actually cut out a section of the manuscript that covered nostalgia over the book’s smell (it turns out that the old-book smell some of us savor is in fact the smell of its decay), because this felt both too judgmental and too sentimental at the same time. But research did strengthen my belief that to truly know books you have to get hands-on with the materials through which they are made. Binding a book is the best way to get a sense of how this form itself makes meaning, and how it can shape the things we say and the ways we read. I liked imagining how papyrus gets made, but I’d really love to actually go out and experience stripping the stalks, laying them in a cross-hatched pattern, and beating them until they fuse — I know that would deepen my understanding of the material, much as pulling a sheet of paper in Columbia College’s papermaking department deepened my appreciation for, and understanding of, the grid of the page.
Inevitably, The Book’s engagement with digital-book production needs to stay somewhat provisional, though you do provide a compelling catalog of projects from recent decades. Following your book-arts considerations, your engagements with digital books likewise trace a confluence of historically, technologically, commercially, ideologically, epistemologically, aesthetically determined pressures shaping our creation of and encounter with the latest range of interactive reading devices: devices not eclipsing the codex, so much as foregrounding how books always have called forth an improvisatory performance, negotiation, event of meaning-making — even when marketed as fixed, stable, straightforwardly functional consumerist commodities. Here Lori Emerson’s critique of transparent-seeming informational interfaces encouraging impassive and/or unreflective audience consumption proves especially useful. So rather than categorically lament the loss of “deep-reading” potential in emergent literary forms, could we consider, for instance, how certain contemporary works “use the affordances of the web and mobile devices…as part of their structure,” encouraging critical reflection on the immersive and/or interactive environments that they themselves construct, evoking even as they undermine “the myth of digital disembodiment”?
Yes, I think that’s exactly right. I don’t believe “deep reading” has been lost, if it ever really existed in the first place. Digital interfaces can invite absolutely immersive, thoughtful, complex reading experiences that do not replicate the already rewarding experience of print. I get most excited about digital books that allow the interface to be part of the story they tell, which is why I give short readings of Erik Loyer’s apps Strange Rain and Ruben and Lullaby. Loyer uses interactivity and touch in ways that implicate the reader in how stories unfold, here requiring our fingertips to shape what happens. That he incorporates strong writing with beautiful visuals and mesmerizing music makes each experience totally unique to the app interface. And again, these works make us physically see the interface, since we have to pass our fingers over it to make anything happen.
On the subject of “deep reading,” I do think that not all books have the same function. I don’t go to poetry searching for the same things I search for in Victorian novels. Every book presents a distinct engagement with language, so why would we expect them all to be the same or look the same? That’s something Carrión laments in his great manifesto “The New Art of Making Books.” Some conceptual writer could probably repurpose this entire 1975 text, replacing the words “book” with “e-book” and “bookstore” with “whispernet” to critique the lack of innovation on the part of e-book publishers. The digital humanities scholar Élika Ortega has written a twitter bot, BotCarrion, which, you might say, does just that, periodically tweeting definitions of the book based on the corpus of this manifesto.
To close on questions of the book’s future modes of interface, engagement, dissemination, could we consider, alongside more familiar digital initiatives such as Project Gutenberg and Google Books, the Internet Archive’s charmingly retro/inventive methods of having it “both ways…it treats the book as an object, providing high-resolution color scans that show the nuances of the page’s surface and include foldout images and marginalia to replicate the book as closely as possible, but it also makes the same book available in multiple digital formats to meet the needs of different readers,” or how the Internet Archive goes about engaging various types of reading disabilities, or how it bookmobiles its way to under-resourced reading communities, bearing printers, or how it preserves books in multiple ways, vowing not to destroy them while it copies them, then provisionally retiring printed books in a bibliophile’s equivalent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault? Again something tells me your own desire stays with the Internet Archive throughout this section.
Oh, it’s true. I did sort of fall in love with IA when I was writing that chapter, though I didn’t want to. Maybe if it seemed like my heart was with them, then your heart was with them too? But I appreciate this totally absurd gesture that an institution founded to archive the most porous and changeable text of all (the Internet) has developed an initiative to preserve physical books as well, in climate-controlled cargo containers. And their system for making books widely available in a digital public library makes a lot of sense to me: particularly as libraries continue to reduce the amount of space devoted to bookshelves, and to increase their footprint as public and social settings (an important and valuable aspect of what they do, but one that makes browsing and happening upon interesting books harder and harder). I do appreciate the Internet Archive’s attention to the material and the digital at once, and my hope for digital reading writ large is that more authors and publishers will do the same — allowing the e-book interface to become as central to the reading experience as the clay tablet or codex book are when held in the hand.