In “The Scholarly Kitchen“, Joseph Esposito writes: “I suspect that the multiple narratives of Pears’s fiction will someday find an analogue in expository writing that enables intersections of one theme or thread with another, which would provide, as it were, a new form of discovery.”
Perhaps that “analogue” is already here for the scholarly article in Elsevier’s “Article of the Future” and Wiley’s “Anywhere Article“. In scholarly expository writing, the intersections are often those of “conversations” among articles, for which the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) has performed and continues to perform an innovatory spark. Consider the activity and ten aims of the Linked Content Coalition.
All of this has been a long time coming. The DOI has its roots in the Handle System, whose roots weave back beyond the Web to the Internet Protocol (IP) itself. Esposito notes Iain Pears’s print antecedents in the experimental ’60s fiction of John Barth and the creator of Scheherazade, and he could have added the 1987 digital precursor Afternoon, A Story by Michael Joyce.
A long time coming, and to the kids in the backseat reading Pears’s Arcadia on their iPads, “No, we’re not there yet … keep reading!”
Print Wikipedia is a both a utilitarian visualization of the largest accumulation of human knowledge and a poetic gesture towards the futility of the scale of big data. Mandiberg has written software that parses the entirety of the English-language Wikipedia database and programmatically lays out thousands of volumes, complete with covers, and then uploads them for print-on-demand. Built on what is likely the largest appropriation ever made, it is also a work of found poetry that draws attention to the sheer size of the encyclopedia’s content and the impossibility of rendering Wikipedia as a material object in fixed form: Once a volume is printed it is already out of date. The work is also a reflection on the actual transparency or completeness of knowledge containers and history. (Denny Gallery)
Mandiberg echoes a conceptual framework initiated by John F. Simon, Jr. and his “Every Icon” in 1996-97. Every Icon is a grid of 32 x 32 empty squares underpinned by a Java applet that explores successively every combination of black and white squares that could occur within the confines of that grid. Changing from light to dark and back again, the black or white boxes “hop” progressively to the right. Over time (say a trillion years), the grid will will populate itself with shapes. Simon’s algorithmically driven “artist’s proof” speaks to the ephemerality, futility and power of art, which is the unavoidable, underlying theme of “Every Icon” and, for that matter, any instance of installation or performance art.
As Simon puts it,
While Every Icon is resolved conceptually, it is unresolvable in practice.
In some ways the theoretical possibilities outdistance
the time scales of both evolution and imagination.
It posits a representational system where computational
promise is intricately linked to extraordinary duration and momentary sensation.
In Mandiberg’s case – whether it is the complete set or a print-on-demand segment – the realized print element of the Print Wikipedia demonstrates the work’s unresolvability in practice. Even if I hold out hope that the “art” (the algorithmic techne/craft) of Print Wikipedia lasts long, any artifact “resolved” by Print Wikipedia will always be out of date until the “final moment” of Wikipedia (whatever that might look like). Warning: the links from previous reviews of Every Icon are often dead, which is doubly ironic: the technical community always speaks of “links resolving to a resource”, so with those dead links, there is a further, unintended “unresolvability”.
Mandiberg’s work also echoes the conceptual framework initiated by Paul Soulellis and Library of the Printed Web. Like the volumes in Mandiberg’s Printed Wikipedia, those in the LotPW are created by print on demand.
In Soulellis’ words,
Library of the Printed Web is a collection of works by artists who use screen capture, image grab, site scrape and search query to create printed matter from content found on the web. LotPW includes self-published artists’ books, photo books, texts and other print works gathered around the casual concept of “search, compile and publish“.
The content in Benjamin Shaykin’s Special Collection consists of found pages in which a scanner’s hand was accidentally captured by the Google scanning system during the Google Book Project . This is truly “manually” found content. The content of Mandiberg’s work is algorithmically “found content” on a massive scale. While it may be that Print Wikipedia represents the “futility of the scale of big data”, I prefer the irrational hope that its print element, however tied to the digital, and the physical book art of the LotPW secure the consolation of “ars longa, vita brevis”.
In her note in BookRiot, Nikki Steele takes Brian Dettmer’s TED talk remark that books are created to relate to our human scale and builds on it elegantly, if all too briefly, by bringing together the installation works “Literature versus Traffic”, “Scanner”, “Book Cell”, “Singularity”, “Biographies” and “Contemporaries”. She’s not the first to provide a Pinterest– or Flickr-style burst of “ooh, look at this”, but unlike her predecessors, she makes the point worth pondering: this art that is not on a human scale evokes wonder and awe.
This challenges and expands on Dettmer’s point that people are disturbed by book art because we think of the book as a body, a living thing. As John Milton said, “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself”. That was in the context of book licensing laws that led to the confiscation and destruction of unlicensed books. Still, Milton would probably react as angrily to individual works of book art, and he might view the installations as if they were on the scale of the massacre of the Waldensians in the Piedmont.
Dettmer’s justification of book art that books “also have the potential to continue to grow and to continue to become new things”, that “books really are alive”, leaves us still squirming on the hook when Steele asks, “what happens when artists explode the scale and take books much, much larger?”. If you think cutting up or destroying a book is sacrilegious, what is your reaction to the 10,000 splayed in the streets of Melbourne by Luzinterruptus or the equal number cast by Alicia Martín into frozen defenestrations in Madrid and elsewhere in Spain or the even greater number in Marta Minujín’s The Parthenon of Books, installed for documenta in Kassel, Germany?
Miltonic eruption? Or Steele-ish delight, awe and love of the art?
Let’s raise the stakes and confusion. What if the books used in the single-volume work and installations were the Koran, the Bible or the Torah? Art and ethics are rarely happy bedfellows. Is there such a thing as “responsible art” that does not run afoul of the principle of the creative spirit or the integrity of art? Is art wholly without cultural, ethical or social contextual obligations?
This is why I like book art. It provokes just by coming into being. Its existence and appreciation are hard won.
The seasonal flu among expositors of the future of the book and the future of reading is upon us. No sooner does one town cryer sneeze about the latest reading device or software than a town de-cryer follows heralding the superiority of reading print – or vice versa.
And without a hint of irony, here’s the online-only .Mic demonstrating that variant strains can cross generations and oceans as well as media: “Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books“. That would be the oft-repeated Norwegian study of two groups of 10th graders, one of which – the print readers – comprehends and retains more than its ebook-reading counterpart.
There are plenty of days remaining before the year’s close for the digital riposte surely on its way to envelop us. In the meantime, here is a combined and fortified reading list from Christmas bloggings past:
Mangen, Anne, and Velay, Jean-Luc. Cognitive implications of new media. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media. Edited by Marie-Laure Ryan, Lori Emerson and Benjamin J. Robertson. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.
Craig Mod modulates on margins here in Medium (18 August 2014).
Text printed on the best paper with no margins or unbalanced margins is vile. Or, if we’re being empathetic, sad. (For no book begins life aspiring to bad margins.) I know that sounds harsh. But a book with poorly set margins is as useful as a hammer with a one inch handle. Sure, you can pound nails, but it ain’t fun. A book with crass margins will never make a reader comfortable. Such a book feels cramped, claustrophobic. It doesn’t draw you in, certainly doesn’t make you want to spend time with the text….
On the other hand, cheap, rough paper with a beautifully set textblock hanging just so on the page makes those in the know, smile (and those who don’t, feel welcome). It says: We may not have had the money to print on better paper, but man, we give a shit. Giving a shit does not require capital, simply attention and humility and diligence. Giving a shit is the best feeling you can imbue craft with. Giving a shit in book design manifests in many ways, but it manifests perhaps most in the margins.
Reiterating his point by analogy, Mod channels the late designer George Nakashima: “in order to produce a fine piece of furniture, the spirit of the tree must live on. You give it a second life … You can make an object that lives forever, if used properly.
For the fundamentals underlying Mod’s scatologically and poetically emphatic truth, you cannot find much better than Alexander Ross Charchar’s essay on the craft and calculations of “page canons” by Villard de Honnecourt (13th century!) , J.A. Van de Graaf, Raúl Rosarivo and Jan Tschichold: “The Secret Law of Page Harmony“. Most delightful is Charchar’s dynamic diagram “The Dance of the Four Canons” illustrating the workings of each page canon:
Copyright 2010, Alexander Ross Charchar.
The Further Reading suggested by Charchar and his commenters is excellent, and I would only add Marshall Lee’s Bookmaking. For those who are irritated with the imposition of the print paradigm on the digital reading experience, there is a useful pointer to applying the page canons to website design that will cause a rethink of that irritation and equally make the imposers think harder as well.
For those who care about the book, what it is evolving into and the role that heart, mind and design still play in that process, read Charchar’s”The Secret Law of Page Harmony” –again and again.
In another elegy for paper, Mark Fox in Designers & Booksleaps from the famous conversation between Ray Bradbury’s characters Professor Faber and Fireman Montag in Fahrenheit 451 that begins, “Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean?” to Jaron Lanier’s assertion that the remix culture is responsible for “the digital flattening of expression into a global mush.” Fox sets this against Professor Faber’s elaboration of what he means by “quality”:
To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.
Saalfeld – … I’m interested in the changes that take place over time. In nature, the old sits alongside the new. There are always tensions, and injuries.
Mantz – That is exactly what characterises your images. This breaking apart and breaking through as if the colours were peeling off to reveal fragments of completely different pictures behind.
Saalfeld – Gaps appear through these breaks and dislocations. This allows something different to emerge from the image. There is always an unexplained story behind the story, another version. I no longer believe in a single, individual image.
Here is a healthy “anxiety of influence” that overcomes qualms about tradition, builds upon it and, yes, perhaps devours it as if it were seed corn. Its analogs in book publishing can be found in the work of Tom Abba, Duncan Speakman and others associated with WeAreCircumstance or in the works of Jonathan Safran Foer and others published by Visual Editions, all of which represent an intersection of narrative and the plastic visual arts.
Paper is not dead, digital is not still-born, creativity is a phoenix.
These Pages Fall Like Ash, Tom Abba
Short Films for You, Tom Abba, Els Viaene, Reinout Hiel and Yoko Ishiguro
Math Monahan’s installationSpecimen is book art that cannot be ignored.
[ The book is an organism. It lived, spread all over the world and, some would consider, is endangered today. These creatures have a life of their own. They manifest themselves in many forms but where did they come from? If they are animals of paper and text, from what kind of beast did they evolve? This series studies those primordial creatures that became the developed beings colonizing our homes and libraries. By looking at growth patterns, mutations, and morphological similarities we can better understand this animal’s rise in population for so many years, as well as its current decline toward extinction. ]
The images above constitute a mesmerizing series on Monahan’s site. It is as if we are looking at photographs of deep-sea creatures or impressions of fossils or slides of microscopic organisms. The latter impression is reinforced by the petri dishes in which the circular images are framed, but of late, the organisms, shown in the rectangular photos, have escaped the petri dish to occupy an undefined abyss. Like snorkeling or diving for the first time in strange waters, the experience of viewing Specimen is beautiful, exhilarating and a bit scary. The words quoted above and fixed alongside the images are humorous, wistful but still, in the end, a bit scary. The book: evolution or extinction?
Monahan hails from the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, whose library by chance was one of the original five library partners in the Google Library Print Project that began in 2004. In March 2012, Jennifer Howard reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education that Google’s book-scanning project had reached its 20 millionth volume but was slowing down. Even so, at its average rate, Google should have about 25 million books scanned now. As if foreshadowing Monahan’s metaphor literally and using the Google collection like a literary genome project, Harvard’s Steven Pinker, Jean-Baptiste Michel and the Google Books Team “constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed [enabling them] … to investigate cultural trends quantitatively”. From this reservoir of digital strands, they plucked out the references to each year between 1875 and 1975 in the books, plotted them and found
The plots had a characteristic shape. For example, “1951” was rarely discussed until the years immediately preceding 1951. Its frequency soared in 1951, remained high for 3 years, and then underwent a rapid decay, dropping by half over the next 15 years. Finally, the plots enter a regime marked by slower forgetting: Collective memory has both a short-term and a long-term component.
But there have been changes. The amplitude of the plots is rising every year: Precise dates are increasingly common. There is also a greater focus on the present. For instance, “1880” declined to half its peak value in 1912, a lag of 32 years. In contrast, “1973” declined to half its peak by 1983, a lag of only 10 years. We are forgetting our past faster with each passing year.
Ironic that. Analysis of the “DNA” extracted from over 5 million specimens of the organism designed to preserve our past tells us that we are forgetting it more quickly year by year.
Curious about his interactions with the book species, I wrote to Math Monahan to ask if we could conduct the “in medias res” experiment: to go to his bookshelf, select a volume from the middle of any shelf, open the volume to its center pages, tell me what is there and answer a set of questions.
What are the objects immediately on either side of the selected book? As you take the book from its place, what are your physical sensations? How does the book feel to you? As you open to its middle page, what do you hear, smell or see about it or around it?
Do you recall the circumstances of acquiring the book? What were you doing when you acquired it? Why this book?
As an artist whose work has an intimate relationship to “the book,” could you describe the effect this has on you when you are reading books in general?
Turning the question on its head, when the act of creating a work rather than the act of reading is in flight, how do books feed your working process?
MM: I decided to choose from my “to read” shelf. The book I found in the center felt “right” as soon as I saw it there. Although it was on my “to read” shelf, I decided to read it before replying. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to or not, I think it was the right choice. Anyway, here is my choice. As you can see, the book I’m using has a slightly different layout.
BoB: And what about the books and things around it, and what you felt as took Tree of Codes from the shelf?
MM: To the left stands the book, Folklore and Book Culture by Kevin Hayes. To the right, two wooden boxes stacked, act as a book end/space filler, followed by more books. The larger box on the bottom contains various samples of handmade papers. The smaller box on top contains blank note cards. As I removed the book I felt the unfamiliar squeezing of pages that I was surprised by when I first bought the book. It was caused by the cutouts on each page. They create the different densities that differ from the standard solid-block feel of a book. When I opened the book to its estimated middle page, I remember being very gentle. The layout of the book made the pages delicate lattices that I am very careful to keep intact. The carefulness must have overridden my other senses, because I don’t remember anything else. I thought the book felt “right” when I found it because, as a book artist, I work with the form of the book and the book as an object. That is my main interest. This book is published by Visual Editions, a publishing company that believes “books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell” (www.visual-editions.com). This idea meshes well with ideas in my own work.
BoB: Now that you’ve read Tree of Codes, you will have noticed how The Street of Crocodiles has pretty much disappeared. Almost but not completely. Are there echoes of that phenomena in your own work?
MM: Yes. Often the content of the books I’m using in my work is irrelevant. I am exploring the book as a physical form. Through folding, braiding, warping or any other alteration, I am revealing the transformative nature of the book. Each one holds different possibilities. My struggle is in convincing the viewer of this. We have a tendency to immediately read text, almost instinctual. Can text be texture? Is there more information contained in a book than words and images?
While a part of my process is (what I have been calling) relieving the book of text, I don’t feel this is an act of violence against any author(s). It is clear in Tree of Codes that the removal of text is an act of love or admiration for the primary story. My admiration is for the object itself. The text will live on in many forms. I am not using rare or one-of-a-kind books here.
BoB: Do you recall the circumstances of buying Tree of Codes? What were you doing when you decided to buy it? What prompted the purchase?
MM: I found it in a Barnes and Noble. I remember being surprised to see it there because it is a sort of unconventional book. I quickly put together that the author, Jonathan Safran Foer, recently had one of his books made into a movie and that could prompt the store to have all his works in stock. Still, I was very pleased to find it. I was introduced to the book about a year earlier by a friend. It was coming home with me that day, no question.
BoB: As an artist whose work has an intimate relationship to “the book,” could you describe the effect this has on you when you are reading books in general? The question may have different answers depending on the type of book or your intention on opening the book, so feel free to qualify your answer as you like.
MM: I think my relationship to “the book” changed how I approach books in any context. For better or for worse, I have noticed this change. The phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” comes to mind here. I find myself judging a book not only by its cover but also by its weight, size and shape, the textures of its cover and pages. Even by the fonts used in the body of the text are included in this analysis. Of course I read the summary and printed comments on the back, but these often fall after the book passes the physical tests.
BoB: Turning the question on its head, when the act of creating a work rather than the act of reading is in flight, how do books feed your working process?
MM: This is where all the information gathered through the process described above come into use. Understanding how paper textures interact with colors and fonts, how negative space in a text block affects how quickly you move through the book, how the lines of text change as you curl and warp the pages; all are now the backdrop to the creation of my own work. Sometimes this raw data is in the forefront of my thoughts while I’m working, while other times it is synthesized into a cloud of intuitive responses. The latter is often what I’m referring to when I say something “feels right”.
BoB: Decades ago, Peter Frank commented that exhibiting artists books behind glass was to confine them ” in some anaerobic chamber”. Unless your “organisms” in Specimen present themselves in the equivalent of a petting zoo, their exhibition requires us to stand at a distance and prompts us to view the book as an object to be regarded rather than “read” in the usual sense.
Your installation Between is another case in point but intriguingly different. There, you have taken two sets of books, opened each book, braided its pages so that it stands open and arranged each set of braided books in a circle spine to spine.
The circle arrangement holds the set together, without adhesives or mechanical apparatus, and the pages slowly unbraid themselves, each book returning to its original form. Although the installations, one in the Penny Stamps Graduate Studio and the other in the Hatcher Graduate library of the University of Michigan, are not under glass or otherwise fenced away from the “reader”, the “reading” or art experience can only occur as the unfolding occurs. And, of course, being in two separate locations, the installations do not allow us to experience them simultaneously. Yet, you intend “the installations [to] form a whole existing between the two spaces”.
So while Specimen is “at a distance” from us in one way, Between is so in another. With Specimen, we are relatively passive viewers. With Between, although we are not reading the unbraiding volumes, we are more active, almost participating. Our “witness” to the unbraiding is a necessary element of the artwork, but is that unbraiding toward forgetfulness and extinction or memory and renewal?
MM: Participation is the point of books. They are meant to be interacted with. That interaction has become a recent focus, especially thinking of library books and other books as they pass through several hands. I can admit, reading a good book leaves its mark on me. But what marks do we leave of books? What are the traces of these intimate interactions? Through time, whole communities are embedded in these artifacts. Find a book from a library or thrift store and try to imagine everyone that has ever handled that specific edition. Can you feel them around you? I aim to reveal that community.
BoB: One last question. Between forgetfulness and extinction, on the one hand, and memory and renewal, on the other, where would you bookmark us and the book?
MM: Whether book sales are up or down, it’s irrelevant. Even if the extinction of books never happens, the fact that text CAN be read digitally opens the book to possibilities beyond text, similar to (in my opinion) what happened to painting with the invention of photography. Artists are still working in representation, even hyperrealism, but the rapid expanse of painting and thought behind what a painting is – that is the direction that I’d like to see our interaction with books move in.
Klima, Stefan.Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature. New York: Granary Books, 1998, p.67, citing Jacqueline Brody, “Peter Frank: A Case for Marginal Collectors”, Print Collector’s Newsletter, IX, no. 2, March-April 1978, p. 44.
Michel, Jean-Baptiste et al. “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books”, Science, 14 January 2011, Vol. 331, no. 6014, pp. 176-182, accessed 19 September 2013: DOI: 10.1126/science.1199644.
The Repository of Primary Sources has been running since 1995 at the University of Idaho. Under the wing of Terry Abraham, it lists “over 5000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources for the research scholar”, and “[all] links have been tested for correctness and appropriateness”.
So what has this to do with the evolution of the book? Well, in the world of book publishing, whose job has it been to make sure that a book is known about and can be found — not only on publication but after? Marketing, Promotion and Publicity, undoubtedly, but they would be among the first to shout if Editorial or someone had not registered the book’s metadata with Bowker or the equivalent local ISBN registry.
According to Google, there are 129,864,880 books in the entire world (as of 5 August 2010, 8:26AM), but that is a semi-statistical estimate for the modern era drawn from sources such as ISBN registrars and OCLC’s WorldCat. Bookfinder/JustBooks, launched in 1997 by Anirvan Chatterjee, claims that through its network, it searches over 150 million books for sale. With the great hoohah over Hugh Howey’s Amazonian extrapolation, we can safely assume that there are many, many more books out there probably without ISBNs, which after all only came into effect in the 1970s and, even so, now there are vociferous opponents to the ISBN calling it an offline anachronism.
There is no question to beg about the usefulness of metadata. So is there a Terry Abraham and cohort out there to whom publishers and self-publishing authors can turn to deposit metadata whose links will be “tested for correctness and appropriateness”? Of course, that begs the question of whether there should be someone or organizations out there to perform that function. Why not leave it to the power of the Internet or the power of the market? Even if a book goes unnoticed or after a time becomes an “orphan work“, the power has spoken.
Let’s leave the power politics for another bookmark. Whoever performs the function, what exactly is it? Let’s call it the “findability” function. It goes beyond the usual social media marketing of a book or ebook that most publishers assign to Marketing. It goes beyond the usual search engine optimization (SEO), although it is arguably a part of it.
It goes to making the book as locatable an object as it can be, endowing it with “ambient findability.” See Peter Morville’s book of that title and judge for yourself whether “endowing something with ambient findability” misconstrues what he is saying or how the Web works. Nevertheless, …
Superfluous as they are claimed to be becoming, should publishers leave findability to the ISBN registries and librarians (until they become superfluous as well) or to the technorati?
As the book evolves, this “findability” function currently falls between the stools of Commissioning (where the editor discovers the author and pumps him or her not only for the ms but for connections leading to sales/marketing opportunities and further editorial opportunities), Editorial/Production (where the copyeditor, designer and production editor ensure that metadata is assigned and link-checks are run and the work is registered with the Library of Congress), Sales/Marketing (where marketeers scour the author’s questionnaire if it has arrived, create lists of mailing and emailing lists, compile the list of offline and online reviewers/bloggers and design the social media campaign and where a sales account manager with responsiblity for Amazon and other online accounts worries whether IT has included the work in the scheduled ONIX, EDI and customized catalog feeds) and Operations/Finance (where an accountant, analyst or inventory controller assigns the ISBN usually upon receipt of contract approval).
So if you are self-publishing or publishing books/ebooks, who attends to the ambient findability of what you are publishing? As more and more books go online, isn’t this part of the new craft and art of the book?
By the way, I found Morville’s book one rainy Saturday afternoon while shelving books at the local Oxfam bookstore. I bought it instead of shelving it.
I mean the sesquicentenary of the premature announcement of the death of the book and such of its hangers-on as authors, readers and libraries. I suppose I should be satisfied to have seen its centenary. Robert Coover’s essay in the New York Times (June 1992) marked it a bit early, echoing Louis Octave Uzanne‘s tongue-in-cheek knelling in Scribner’s Magazine (August 1894), right down to the same title – “The End of Books”:
I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern mechanism [the phonograph] forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg’s invention can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude as a means of current interpretation of our mental products.
For Coover, not so tongue in cheek, it was hypertext’s divergent, interactive and polyvocal routes as opposed to the book’s unidirectional page-turning that heralded the death of the book (and the author). D. T. Max rang out against CD-ROMs and the Internet bang on time in 1994 with “The End of the Book?” in The Atlantic when it was still called The Atlantic Monthly:
… the question may not be whether, given enough time, CD-ROMS and the Internet can replace books, but whether they should. Ours is a culture that has made a fetish of impermanence. Paperbacks disintegrate, Polaroids fade, video images wear out. Perhaps the first novel ever written specifically to be read on a computer and to take advantage of the concept of hypertext … was Rob Swigart’s Portal, published in 1986 and designed for the Apple Macintosh, among other computers of its day. … Over time people threw out their old computers (fewer and fewer new programs could be run on them), and so Portal became for the most part unreadable. A similar fate will befall literary works of the future if they are committed not to paper but to transitional technology like diskettes, CD-ROMS, and Unix tapes–candidates, with eight-track tapes, Betamax, and the Apple Macintosh, for rapid obscurity. “It’s not clear, with fifty incompatible standards around, what will survive,” says Ted Nelson, the computer pioneer, who has grown disenchanted with the forces commercializing the Internet. “The so-called information age is really the age of information lost.” … In a graphic dramatization of this mad dash to obsolescence, in 1992 the author William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace,” created an autobiographical story on computer disc called “Agrippa.” “Agrippa” is encoded to erase itself entirely as the purchaser plays the story. Only thirty-five copies were printed, and those who bought it left it intact. One copy was somehow pirated and sent out onto the Internet, where anyone could copy it. Many users did, but who and where is not consistently indexed, nor are the copies permanent–the Internet is anarchic. “The original disc is already almost obsolete on Macintoshes,” says Kevin Begos, the publisher of “Agrippa.” “Within four or five years it will get very hard to find a machine that will run it.” Collectors will soon find Gibson’s story gone before they can destroy it themselves.
Best not to wait for that sequicentenary then. Accommodatingly in 2012,David A. Bell and Leah Price rolled out the canon more with Google, ebooks and the Kindle tolling not merely for the print book but rather for the New York Public Library and all libraries. We even had screenings throughout 2013 and scheduled for January 2014 of the documentary Out of Print, which asks, “Is the book as we know it really dead? Is the question even important in an always-on, digital world?”
The nearer one stands, of course, the louder it is.
Sounded in the nineties but not obviously well heard, Paul Duguid, he of The Social Life of Information co-fame with John Seely Brown, advised “taking a breath”:
… it’s important to resist announcements of the death of the book or the more general insistence that the present has swept away the past or that new technologies have superseded the old. To refuse to accept such claims is not, however, to deny that we are living through important cultural or technological changes. Rather, it’s to insist that to assess the significance of these changes and to build the resources to negotiate them, we need specific analysis not sweeping dismissals.
… to offer serious alternatives to the book, we need first to understand and even to replicate aspects of its social and material complexity. Indeed, for a while yet, it will probably be much more productive to go by the book than to go on insistently but ineffectually repeating “good bye”.
So it is heartening (or depressing if you are a Jeremiah) to see 2013 rung out with an essay by Roger Schonfeld (ITHAKA S+R) that celebrates and encourages the specific analysis Duguid urged. In “Stop the Presses: Is the monograph headed for an e-only future?”, Schonfeld suggests several directions for further research and design:
What are the perceived constraints of existing digital interfaces with respect to long-form reading of scholarly monographs? What functional requirements does print currently serve better than digital with respect to monographs, even recognizing that many of the same individuals are acquiring and using tablets and reader devices for other purposes? How can content platforms and publishers better address the needs of academic readers and other users?
In an environment that has in many ways grown more fragmented over time, how can libraries and content platforms ensure the most efficient discovery and access experience possible for users of scholarly monographs? Is there a place for serendipity?
How can stewards of primary source materials in tangible and digital form, such as archives, museums, and digital libraries, most effectively support the digitization of their own materials for discovery and access purposes and provide for rich linkages with the analysis of their holdings found in the scholarly monograph?
If greater opportunities are provided over time for readers to engage with the primary sources, how might authors respond to reshape the nature of the monograph?
Will the digital version of the scholarly monograph diverge from the print version as additional features can be added?
At the heart of what changes but remains in the shift from print to digital are Search and Usability or “ambient findability” as Peter Morville terms them. Morville’s seminal work on information architecture, search and user experience focuses on the Web but is equally applicable to the book and ebook. A superior e-monograph will enlighten its readers by the author’s choice of information architecture and its enabling them to learn and evaluate the search paths that lead to the presentation, the arguments and the primary sources. Likewise the superior print monograph achieves its goals by the judicious combination of preliminaries, Part, Chapter, endmatter and thousands of years’ development of paratextual apparatus.
Of the print apparatus for search and usability, the table of contents and other parts of the printed book’s preliminaries may not remain a useful point of entry to a scholarly ebook. In 2002, when a small team at McGraw-Hill working with Unbound Medicine decided that putting the index at the front of HarrisonsOnHand in place of the table of contents made more sense for the user of an HP iPAQ, they thought they had made a major breakthrough for mobile ebooks. Almost. What they were realizing is the centrality of those twin navigational stars, Search and Usability.
Only a little over a decade later, the insight continues to dawn, and with the intervening improvements in interfaces and devices, it may be much brighter this time.
The process of digitizing a printed book involves much more than the conversion of ink on paper to bits in a file. Functional aspects of the book must be mapped to digital equivalents. Thus we have tables of contents and indices turning into hyperlinks and spine files, page numbers that beget location anchors and progress indicators.
So wrote Eric Hellman earlier this year in “Anachronisms and Dysfunctions of eBook Front and Back Matter” and concluded that the title page in an ebook ought to be a “Start” page like the start screens in the old interactive CD ROMs or today’s DVDs of television series. Publishers such as Faber with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or Moonbot Studios with The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore have done just that.
Although the EPUB doyen and doyenne, Richard Pipe and Liz Castro, advised usability-driven rethinking of frontmatter, the practice is not widespread among purveyors of the less-than-enhanced ebook. Most editorial and design advisors such as Joel Friedlander only go so far. Their advice generally assumes the direct transfer of print frontmatter to the ebook. While allowing for the omission of spatial anachronisms like the bastard or half title, they only caution against overburdening the ebook’s frontmatter. As for the traditional index at the other end of the ebook, many publishers omit them or simply replicate the print version without links. Ebook indexes that link terms to their multiple locations in the text regardless of the flow of the text in the ereader or device are rare for obvious technical and financial reasons, and only this year was an EPUB specification for the index approved.
The two great affordances of the printed book that most challenge today’s ebooks and ereaders, however, are legibility and the page. While screen legibility may be improving at a “blinding rate”, we have today little more specific, scientific analysis of screen vs print legibility than Ellen Lupton found in 2003, although Jakob Nielsen remains indefatigable on the subject. Mechanics aside, the debate over the efficacy of reading from the page vs that from the screen should always be kept in mind. Ferris Jabr‘s April 2013 article in Scientific American and the six months of responses to it helped the topic considerably. Jabr concluded, “When it comes to intensively reading long pieces of plain text, paper and ink may still have the advantage. But text is not the only way to read.” Which harks back to the conclusion of a previous post in Books on Books and Jerome Bruner’s apt observation of Lev Vygotsky’s fondness for Sir Francis Bacon’s epigram, “Nec manus, nisi intellectus, sibi permissus, multum valent” (Neither hand nor intellect left each to itself is worth much)” (247). Perhaps for now neither print nor digital left each to itself is sufficient.
How the page matters. Enough so for Bonnie Mak to make it the subject and title of her book and to join Johanna Drucker, Peter Stoicheff, Jerome McGann and a long list of scholars conducting the analysis Duguid urged. As the August 2013 Ploughsharesinterview with her illustrates, Mak’s focus and interest on the material aspects of the page and book extends also to the library and performance art. Which brings us back to Drucker the book artist, who argues that instead of considering the page, table of contents, etc., as static, iconographic features of format, we should think of them as cognitive cues in an instruction set in the “program” of the codex. With reflowable text and responsive design, though, the cues can become slippery, so much so that the EPUB standard makers introduced Fixed Layout Properties with EPUB3.
This line of thinking about print space vs e-space comes sharply into focus if we consider annotatability, another of the printed book’s apparently superior affordances. While various devices and ereaders offer the ability to highlight and annotate, not all do, and the annotations are rarely accessible to others or across devices and platforms. The Web and ebook standards communities are hard at work on a specification for open annotation, which will enable the reader to share annotations of a work with other readers and enable annotations upon annotations. While we wait for the standards, though, the market spawns numerous solutions such as Readmill and SocialBookthat functionally reflect “the conceptual and intellectual motivations” behind the affordance.
These experiments and successes exemplify the specifics Duguid urged. The big print-to-digital experiment of the last decade, however, that would by any measure be deemed to have exceeded expectations is the Google Book Project. Whether it was conducted in any sense “by the book” has been extensively argued in the courts and wherever else publishers, authors, technophobes and technophiles tend to gather. The year saw the dismissal of the Authors’ Guild case against Google, which left everyone just to carry on behind the scenes as they had been. So we are left with both the occasion for further bell-tolling for the book and further Duguidian exploration and experimentation as well as the avenues of research suggested by Schonfeld.
There is, however, one more change to ring at the close of 2013. The metaLABproject pulls a bit on that rope, but Kenneth Goldsmith grasps it firmly and echoes Michael Agresta‘s earlier insights into the many web-to-print phenomena that demonstrate that these two technologies may be forever intertwined. Goldsmith’s “The Artful Accidents of Google Books” highlights several individuals’ obsession with scanning errors from the Google Book Project. One of them is Paul Soulellis, the proprietor of the Library of the Printed Web, which “consists entirely of stuff pulled off the Web and bound into paper books”.
Soulellis calls the Library of the Printed Web “an accumulation of accumulations,” much of it printed on demand. In fact, he says that “I could sell the Library of the Printed Web and then order it again and have it delivered to me in a matter of days.” A few years ago, such books would never have been possible. The book is far from dead: it’s returning in forms that few could ever have imagined.
Or imagined digesting, like the series of book art by the late Dieter Roth, Literaturwurst (1969), to which Agresta gloomily alludes as “a final possible future for the paper book in the age of digital proliferation”.