Book History is Best Understood as Multiple, Interdisciplinary, Fluid, Contextualized, and Provisional

(If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably here for the good digital stuff we keep in the back. Don’t worry. I’ll take you back there in a minute. For now, we’re going to spend a few paragraphs in the dusty archival stacks and white-cloth gloves.)

DSC_0019 Been working a lot on the dissertation lately. Future of the book. History of the book. Really, there are so many amazing projects out there to read.  Focused on just the book. As a cultural object. Some histories work to trace the origins of the book way back before the form it current, overwhelming inhabits now: the codex. That is printed sheets, folded, trimmed, bound, glued, and set in a cover. When I’m talking about “the book,” this is generally what I picture in my head. But you nobody traces the history of anything only back to its first appearance. Histories need to cover the history of emergence, too. (Or in some cases, invention and development, I guess.) Following the book’s history back past the codex (risking an obvious, blog-necessary reductiveness) we find the antecedent to books in the scroll. (Between which there are unbound quartos, pamphlets, etc.) And before the scroll, sheets, and of course clay tablets, bone, wood/bark, and so on. Pretty tough to say where, exactly, “the book” emerges here.

One fascinating aspect of these studies is that in this working ‘evolution’ of the the book, there’s no mention of two other central aspects of book history: paper and ink. For instance, the inks used in modern printing practices are parts of incredibly complicated processes, often involving four-color printing (or more) with various inks developed specifically for different sorts of papers (often in tandem). This is quite an historical accomplishment, considering inks trace their histories back to berry-dies, and one could argue, even to the ink-less printing of clay tablets (yeah, I know, sounds like a radically new marketing scheme for tablet computers or something). And then there’s paper. From the current complexity to the simplest rag/wood strategies of centuries ago. And before that, parchment, vellum, and papyrus (depending on your location on the planet).

So what? This might all be old news to you. Or not exactly shocking. Fine. Here’s what I find interesting about it…

1. If you’re going to tell the history of the book, you’re going to have to weave together multiple, intersecting histories. Books, like most technologies, are relatively complex objects made up of other technologies working in concert with each other. Each of those technologies has its own history (or histories, if you see where I’m going with this). Each of those technologies developed on its own until it was incorporated into the book form. And each of them continued, to some degree autonomously, to develop on its own.

2. As the book evolves, it will continue to absorb and take advantage of new technologies. Consider eBooks currently available in ePub (Kindle, iPad, Sony Reader) for example. They take advantage of different digital technologies like eInk, wireless connectivity, and hard drive storage. Yet, they still have some of the hallmarks of traditional books. Chapters, footnotes, page numbers (in some cases), covers, indexes, etc. And in the next couple of years, books will come to include, at least to some degree, audio, video, and interactivity. To tell the history of books five years from now will require a history of: computers, screen technologies, digital storage, networks, photography, cinema, audio recording, and who knows what else. In other words, the book’s history must change right along with its future. Each development necessitates a new history.

3. What I’m advocating for is kind of impossible. The idea of a static history of anything is pretty untenable. As the present changes, so do all of the factors relevant to understanding it. History is, I think, not a chronicle of the past, but instead a strategy for better understanding the present and the future. There is no history of everything. There is a particular history of X, a particular history of Y, and another history of X. Each with an ideological purpose of some sort. So, in order to tell an history, an historian must know what the history is supposed to accomplish. In the abstract this seems pretty post-structural. (Yay!). But when considered in light of a specific technology like the book, it becomes easier to understand. At least provisionally. The history of the codex could be constructed to reveal how books operate in specific contexts like science or the humanities, or in popular culture or law libraries. An history of the codex could be constructed to better understand what sorts of impacts digital technologies might have on the book. A history of eBooks might involve much of what my previous two examples suggest, as well as the history of the iPad (which could, if necessary, include the iPhone, iPod, and the Macbook) or the Kindle (which could, if necessary, include the Amazon.com in general) or the Google Books settlement (which is going to prompt some seriously draconian (and ultimately failing) attempts at copyright control).

So what does all this mean for the history of books? That book history is best understood as multiple, interdisciplinary, fluid, contextualized, and provisional.

And that’s kind of unsettling. In this case, anyway. For now.

(image appears courtesy of Ryan Trauman. License: same creative commons license that applies to the rest of the blog.)

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