Reading today about the History of The Book. I’ve heard all sorts of authors invoked, explained, grouped together, distiguished between, and problemitized (ugh, don’t like that word). Eisenstein, Birkerts, Bloom, Ong, Havelock, McGann, McKenzie, Chartier, Finkelstein, McCleery, Duguid, Darnton, Adams, Barker, Genette, Foucault, Barthes, LeFebvre, Martin.
I’ve read discussions about the importance of the printing press, the codex, papyrus, parchment, churches, publishing conglomerates, book clubs, etc.Soooo many great ideas. And I can see how they all of these factors have influenced the history of The Book.
I’ve also been reading, lately, about the future of The Book. And the two discussions are alarmingly discontinuous. It would be easy to suggest that the advent of digital technologies are the source of a substantial rupture in these histories in the same way that print literacy ruptured oral culture (see Ong, Havelock) or the way that the printing press ruptured scribal culture (Eisenstien, Birkerts). To some degree I agree that framing digital technologies as culturally transformative is an accurate and useful strategy. Most immediately I acknowledge that digital technologies allow for the circulation of texts with speed and reach that has before been unimaginable. The same could be said for the multimedia rhetorical strategies afforded by digital technologies.
I think it’s fair to say that discussions of the Future of The Book can generally be grouped into two categories.
The first category gathers together arguments about how cultural practices regarding print-based books (covers and paper and ink) have begun to change and will continue to change as we move into the future. As a traditional physical entity, The Book has an important and rich cultural history. Epistemologically and ontologically, it does certain types of work of which no other cultural phenomen is capable. Preservation, circulation, validation. Politics, education, scholarship. Really quite incredible. And each of those functions is going to change significantly as the numbers of print-based books circulating begins to decline over the next several decades.
The second category contains discussions about how the production, reception, and circulation of texts is going to change as digital technologies become ever more pervasive. Multimodality. Speed of circulation. Collaboration. Authorship. Reading practices. All of these aspects of textuality will continue to be challenged, rethought, preserved, and changed in different ways as print-production declines and digital-production increases. Again, some important and fascinating discussions.
But there’s something subtle going on here in these rhetorics of transition. Discussions of the materiality of the book trace the development of the codex, galvanized by the advent of the printing press, and proliferated by the production and circulation systems of industrially developing societies. These sorts of discussions generally transition to the future of The Book by exploring what might happen, culturally, to these cover-paper-print objects. Either these objects will continue to enjoy their historical and (surprisingly) contemporary expansion of production and circulation, or they will eventually be relegated (by digital technologies) to merely esoteric operations as objects of nostalgia, preservation, or collection.
There’s something missing, I think. Well, at least, the discussions I went looking for just haven’t been articulated yet (maybe; I’ve got more reading to do). Most of these discussions don’t talk about non-cover-print-paper iterations of The Book. Where are the discussions of the materiality of The Digital Book? Certainly, they are by no means virtual, right? Can you read a digital book without a screen? Without a local storage source from which you’re accessing it? What software was needed to produce it? And to circulate it? And to read it? What file structures underlie its structure? And how do those structures affect our experience (read: reading) of the text? And why, when text “goes digital,” can it no longer be refered to as a “book,” but only as a “text”?
Generally, it’s my perspective that The Book is a phenomenon of sorts. What I mean is that I wonder if it’s not more useful to frame discussions of the History of The Book and the Future of The Book in terms of Books as Operations, rather than objects. It might be more simple to say that The Book might be more usefully framed as the material performance of work than as a circulating object of production and consumption. In other words, Books as what books DO and how they DO it, rather than what books ARE. Why would I possibly want to reframe these discussions int his way?
There are two reasons, and I hope to address each of them in near-future blog entries. There are two key elements to my reframed definition: Material and Work.
These two points of dicussion, though in some ways inseperable, all for a much more interesting dicussion of the continuities and discontinuieties between the past, present, and future of The Book. There’s a recursive relationship between the work and the material. For instance, the work a book does is afforded and limited by the materials within which it is and can be instantiated. Think, papyrus and scrolls, paper and codexes, printing and covers, and how each of these combination affect access, preservation, and circulation. Now think ebook readers,CD-ROMs, PDFs, and web-based multimedia texts. On the other hand, the technologies incorporated into books is influenced by the work people want them to perform. Circulation has always been a limitation of print books. Digital technologies directly address that limitation.
Okay, I’m already started to tease these out too much. I want to give myself more room in subsequent posts. So I’ll sign off for now. Look for more on this topic soon.