The Black Page Catalogue(2010) Coxwold, UK: Printed by Graham Moss (Incline Press) for The Laurence Sterne Trust. Contains 73 numbered leaves in a matte black card box (H235 x W168 mm). The leaves are glossy cards (210 x 148 mm) on which contributed texts and illustrations (chiefly colour) are printed; the reverse of each provides the contributor’s comments on the text or illustration and the “page” number. Also enclosed are a single-sheet folded pamphlet (“Printing the Black Page” by Graham Moss, Incline Press) and two cards, one of which is the invitation to the exhibition inspired by the ‘black page’, p. 73 of the first edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, held at Shandy Hall, Coxwold, North Yorkshire, 5 Sept.-31 Oct. 2009, and the other, sealed in an envelope, being the index of the contributors and their page numbers. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Collectors come up with the most ingenious reasons for acquiring things. In this case — along with astrological, numerological and other rational rationale — Rebecca Romney’s reminder that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is one of the earlier instances of book art led inevitably to my acquiring Shandy Hall’s The Black Page Catalogue. But it took time.
Several months after enjoying the Romney essay, I met Brian Dettmer in January 2015 by happenstance at a book art exhibition in New Haven, CT. As we chatted about past inspirations of book art, Tristram Shandy came up, so he told me of an upcoming event called “Turn the Page” in Norwich, UK, where I could more easily see some of his work — and one in particular having to do with Tristram Shandy. So in May 2015, I went.
Tristram Shandy (2014) Brian Dettmer Carved and varnished, two copies of the 2005 Folio Society edition of Tristram Shandy. H230 x W190 mm Commissioned by The Laurence Sterne Trust, Coxwold, UK. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The marbled page, an “emblem of my work”, p. 169. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) by Laurence Sterne Illustrated with wood engravings by John Lawrence. Set in ‘Monotype’ Plantin, printed by Cambridge University Press on Caxton Wove Paper. New York: Folio Society, 2005.
So a year passed. Another visit to “Turn the Page” was made. And as I was leaving, lo, a sign and small display came unto me:
Only a negligent collector would ignore such clear signs.
Parson-Yoricks-to-be can select their own favorites here.
Emblem of My Work (2013)
Emblem of My Work (2013) Coxwold, UK: The Laurence Sterne Trust. Consists of a 24-page booklet and 170 numbered cards in a hinged blue paper-covered box (H160 x W105 x D60 mm. The leaves of this catalogue are bright white cards (152 x 92 mm) on which the artwork is printed; the reverse of each provides the “page” number and the contributor’s comments on the art. The booklet provides alphabetical and numerically ordered indexes listing the contributors and their page numbers. Edition of 225, of which this is #79. Acquired from Shandy Hall, 1 October 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Volume III of Sterne’s work was the first to be handled by a publisher. Presumably the famous success of the first two self-published volumes helps to explain James Dodsley’s agreement to printing copies in which each page 169 and each page 170 showed uniquely marbled squares. Images from an original copy held at the British Library can be seen here. As Patrick Wildgust, director of Shandy Hall, explains in the booklet:
The central section of p. 169 was laid upon the marbled mixture in order that a coloured impression could be taken as cleanly as possible. This was left to dry and then reverse-folded so the other side of the paper could also receive its marbled impression. This side of the paper became page . As a result, the marbled page in every copy of Vol. III is different — each impression being a unique handmade image. In the text opposite on p. 168, Sterne tells the reader that the marbled page is the “motly emblem of my work” — the page communicating visually that his work is endlessly variable, endlessly open to chance.
Two favorites — one for page , one for  — artists with other works in the Books On Books Collection. Left: Ken Campbell. Right: Eric Zboya.
Paint Her To Your Own Mind (2018) Coxwold, UK: The Laurence Sterne Trust. Contains 147 numbered leaves in a brown paper-covered box (174 x 124 mm). The leaves are bright white cards (145 x 105 mm) on which contributed texts and illustrations (chiefly colour) are printed; the reverse of each provides the contributor’s comments on the text or illustration and the “page” number. Also enclosed are a “title page” and “index leaf” listing the contributors and their page numbers. Edition of 200. Acquired from Shady Hall, 6 June 2018. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Page 147 of Sterne’s sixth volume of Tristram Shandy is blank. On the preceding page, he metaphorically throws up his hands over any attempt to describe the most beautiful woman who has ever existed and exhorts the reader: “To conceive this right, —call for pen and ink—here’s paper ready to your hand, —Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—‘tis all one to me—please your own fancy in it.” So, accordingly, Shandy Hall invited 147 artists/writers/composers to follow Sterne’s instruction to fill the blank page 147. From the 9th through 30th of September 2016, their efforts were displayed in the Shandy Hall Gallery, Coxwold, York.
The curious reader can choose his or her own favorites here.
The Flourish of Liberty (2019)
In Volume IX on p. 17, the reader reads Corporal Trim’s advice to Uncle Toby, who stands at the Widow Wadman’s threshold about to propose marriage:
Nothing, continued the Corporal, can be so sad as confinement for life — or so sweet, an’ please your honour, as liberty. Nothing, Trim — said my Uncle Toby, musing — Whil’st a man is free — cried the corporal, giving a flourish with his stick thus —
The Flourish of Liberty (2019) Coxwold, UK: The Laurence Sterne Trust. Contains 103 numbered leaves in a gray paper-covered box (174 x 124 mm). The leaves are bright white cards (148 x 105 mm) on which contributed texts and illustrations (black and white, several in colour) are printed; the reverse of each provides the contributor’s comments on the text or illustration and the “page” number. Also enclosed are a “title page” and “index leaf” listing the contributors and their page numbers. Edition of 150, of which this is #133. Acquired from Shandy Hall, 26 October 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
As its subtitle suggests, Material Noise explores how the material aspects of works of criticism and media studies such as Le Da Costa encyclopedique, Jacques Derrida’s Glas, Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book and Mark C. Taylor’s Hiding matter to understanding them — just as if those works were artist books. For the reader interested in book art, the artist book or whatever one might like to call that art, Material Noise might be better read back to front. The works of book art that Anne Royston explores in Material Noise — Mark C. Taylor’s Le Réal, Las Vegas, NV, Shelley Jackson’s Skin, Johanna Drucker’s Stochastic Poetics and Susan Howe’s and R.H. Quaytman’s Tom Tit Tot — come at the end of the book.
The order though is reassuring. Otherwise we might end with criticism, media theory and critical theory becoming the foreground, the works of art simply background, lost in theoretical translation. A case of Barthes for Barthes’ sake? It is fitting that the very material approach to engaging with book art — even with its most conceptual of instances — should be applied to critics and theorists to explicate their works, only then to conclude by showcasing works of art whose mastery of the material may be said to put the more academic works in the aesthetic shade.
Royston selects the journal — Convolution, founded in 2011 by Paul Stephens — to emblematize her starting point: “a blend of art and criticism that considers its material form at every step” and delivers “a materially immersive reading experience” (pp. 1-3). If her publication had occurred in the future, she could have selected Inscription, founded in 2020 by Adam Smyth, Gill Partington and Simon Morris to serve as an open closing point. But that would have spoiled the reassurance of concluding with the art.
As is the wont of theorists (social, literary and otherwise), she proposes a new term, or tool, with which to build her case: “artistic arguments (my emphasis), a term that indicates theory that pushes back against the expectations of the theory or criticism genre, specifically by employing signification that exceeds the semantics of printed text”. Leaving it to the academics to unpack that proposition professionally and evaluate its application, this casual observer suggests that it is analogous to “upward inflection” but without the implied lack of confidence. With a lack of confidence, it would be the declarative sentence that hedges its bet with that annoying, habitual rising tone that turns it into a question.
Royston does not hedge her bets. Her observations about Le Da Costa encyclopedique and its self-conscious, self-referential heterogeneous play with the material forms of the reference work, newspaper and the forms within them — columns, typographical signals (hyphenation), etc. — are assured. Her surfacing of “noise” as a concept and phenomenon key to the shape and message of Le Da Costa, Derrida’s Glas and Ronell’s The Telephone Book is equally assured in each case. Likewise, how — across those three works — she slips among the ideas of “noise” to “formlessness” to “white spaces” to end up on the “surface” of Taylor’s Hiding, his associated multimedia The Réal, Las Vegas, NV and then Jackson’s Skin project.
Royston’s true avatar must be the ilex. In the Taylor/Jackson chapter, she effortlessly moves from Taylor’s university press book then to his electronic artist book and then to Jackson’s embodied/disembodied story literally tattooed word by word on 2,095 volunteers (thereafter called “words”). Royston does it so well that it almost enacts an artistic argument proving her thesis that we should read theory in the way we read artist books.
But collecting theories may not be as satisfying as building real or fantasy collections of art. Being introduced to Taylor’s The Réal, Las Vegas, NV (1997) with its slot machine screen offers the chance to add it alongside Marcel Broodthaers’ Monte Carlo Bond (1924) and Muriel Cooper’s designed Learning from Las Vegas (1972) by Robert Venturi. If you happen across one of Jackson’s “words” in the tattooed flesh from Skin, you can forego a kidnapping charge by turning to Paul Emmanuel’s The Lost Men Project (2006). Crestfallen that no aluminum-covered version of Drucker’s Stochastic Poetics (2012) is easily available? Download the Ubu edition. Also unable to find a copy of Howe’s and Quaytman’s Tom Tit Tot (2014)? Place its link at the Museum of Modern Art Library Council alongside the Meermanno Museum’s for its “Reading as Art” exhibition.
Royston’s book provides collector and critic with an entire toolkit enabling them to encounter the “materially immersive reading experience” and perceive how it is really the “materially engaged reading experience”. Highly recommended.
Reading as Art (2016) Simon Morris, ed. Perfect bound paperback. H297 x W210 mm. Acquired from Information as Material, 22 August 2020. Photo: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the publisher.
Simon Morris and Books On Books crossed paths at the opening of an exhibition at the Meermanno Museum in The Hague. The exhibition was called “The Art of Reading“, and he gave a talk on his performative work Reading as Art (2004), a compiled-stills film of him reading and turning the pages of a book. (Not at all like watching paint dry or grass grow, if you are unkindly thinking so.) Reading as Art (the volume) provides a taste of Reading as Art (the performance) with black-and-white frames from the film appearing at the bottom right-hand corner of nearly every page: just run your thumb down the fore edge and let the pages flip to see the “action”.
Details from Reading as Art (the book). Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the publisher.
That feature of this one volume speaks volumes about Simon Morris as an artist. The idea of “reading as art” is not far off “publishing as art”. Morris’s collaborative publishing operation Information as Material has employed nearly every tool in the “Publishing as Artistic Toolbox“, as the 2018 exhibition in Vienna was called: documented performances, polemics, apps, free downloadable PDFs, prints and broadsides, and a journal Inscription, whose first issue is a sculptural bookwork and comes with a vinyl LP record, poster and chapbook.
Reading as Art (the volume) provides running commentary on all of the exhibition’s entries, which fall into two categories. The first includes works such as that . The second includes works such as that
It is strange that this polemic does not mention William Blake among literary history’s do-it-yourselfers. Although their primary message of “don’t wait for a commercial publisher” is for wordsmiths, the authors include the book artist Johanna Drucker among their hortatory examples as well as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which can lay a plausible claim to being the first work of modern book art, even before Blake’s “artist’s books”. The authors themselves have even played their parts in book art. So why no nod to the world of book art and its past and current contributions to Do or DIY?
In the 1960s and 70s, book artists’ democratic multiples aimed to sidestep the galleries, museums and art industry. Whether chicken or egg, photocopying and cheap printing brought forth or hatched Siegelaub’s The Xerox Book, Ruscha’s Royal Road Test and many more fair fowl. By century’s end and into the 21st, book artists were still doing it themselves, but the democratic multiple ceded quite a bit of territory to limited editions and unique works. Toward the 20th century’s end, desktop publishing and digital publishing, however, offered up a different, much larger target — the super-concentrated publishing industry — for a much larger cadre of creators — wordsmiths. Perhaps that bit-torrent caught up the authors on this occasion.
Still, the occasion itself — an exhibition that saw the polemic printed on indoor walls and on outside posters — must have appealed to the book art community. Book art makes us read differently, and that clearly happened with this exhibition.
Royal Road to the Unconscious (2004)
This is the book of the movie. Or the book of the movie “made by the book” of the movie. Or…. Better let the artist explain:
Utilising Ed Ruscha’s book Royal Road Test as a readymade set of instructions, seventy-eight students cut out every single word from Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. On Sunday, June 1st, 2003, the artist, Simon Morris (thrower) threw the words out of the window of a Renault Clio Sport on Redbridge Road, Crossways, Dorset, travelling at a speed of 90mph, approximately 122 miles southwest of Freud’s psychoanalytical couch in London. The action freed the words from the structural unity of Freud’s text as it subjected them to an ‘aleatory moment’ – a seemingly random act of utter madness.
Daniel Jackson (filmmaker), Maurizio Cogliandro (photographer) and Dallas Seitz (photographer) documented the action as 222,704 words erupted from the window of the car. They also recorded the stream of words strewn along the side of the road. Dr. Howard Britton, a psychoanalyst (driver), directed them to any slippages or eruptions of the Real that occurred in the reconfigured text. The poetic act of liberating Freud’s text allows us to engage with what Jacques Lacan called the register of the Real. The concept of the Real is far removed from anything that we conventionally attribute to reality. It is the experience of a world without language. If language names, it is all that escapes the name – an encounter beyond images and words.
Conceptual art can do one’s head in. So, in the meantime, enjoy the aleatory moment.
Tattered Sails(2018) Derek Beaulieu Saddle-stitched, one staple, colored endpapers; 12 unnumbered pages. H217 x W140 mm. Acquired from Above/Ground Press, 12 March 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Few book artists inspired by Broodthaers’ homage to Mallarmé have seized on aligning a key textual and visual metaphor of the poem with a distortion of Broodthaers’ treatment. That is what Beaulieu has done with Mallarmé’s metaphor of the shipwreck, his typographic replication of it and Broodthaer’s black bars. Tattered Sails also recalls Broodthaers’ A voyage on the North Sea (1973).
Photos: upper, Books On Books Collection; lower, Artists’ Books. Accessed 18 June 2020.
In one sense, Tattered Sails seems to underline the notion that image has supplanted text (W.J.T. Mitchell), which is a little less extreme than image’s having saturated all cultural space (Frederic Jameson) or than art’s just being now a “leeching of the aesthetic out into the social field in general” (Rosalind Krauss). But in another sense, by harking back to the low-tech era of democratic multiples and, nevertheless, enriching the interplay of text and image that spans four different artworks (counting the image on the cover) across the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, Beaulieu pushes back on those 20th century critical notions.
Away from the critical theories’ abyss, Tattered Sails refreshes perception — of the work in itself and those on whose metaphors and techniques it stands. Turning our eyes into hands, it is part of a book art genre –“a genre of Un Coup de Dés“– in which works not only recall the original’s words, their shapes on the pages, the shipwreck tangling and untangling of syntax, the images and meanings bouncing into view like numbers on the side of rolling dice but also recall the rolls of the dice by others before.
With apologies to the preacher: Of making many books [on books] there is no end.
With the choir of its forebearers, Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (MIT Press, 2018) sounds an “amen” to that truth. The proliferation of degree programs in book studies covering the history of the book, the book arts and even book art ensures The Book will not be the last. What distinguishes Borsuk’s book are her perspective as an artist and the book’s breadth and depth despite its brevity.
The book has a long history of existential crises. What is a book? Is the end of the book nigh? For more than a century, those questions have returned again and again. The most recent recurrence stems from the ebook’s threat to dematerialize the book and the online world’s threat to take us into a post-text future. Even before these latest threats, book artists have long lived and worked with their own existential questions, a kind of higher existential calculus, or derivative of, the book’s crises: What is an artist’s book? What is book art? Stephen Bury, Riva Castleman, Johanna Drucker, Joan Lyons, Stefan Klima, Clive Philpott and many others in the last quarter of the 20th century dwelt on defining and categorizing book art.
Borsuk belongs to a later generation of book artists that has embraced these existential crises and recognized that the book’s existential crises are what make the book a rich medium in which and with which to create art — from bio-art miniature to the biblioclastic human-scale to large-scale installations and performances. Even to the digital.
Performance artist and academic as well, Borsuk brings that later generational and creative perspective to the existential question — What is the book? — and, with an artist’s perception of her medium of choice, displaces the old companion existential question — Is the end of the book nigh? — with an altogether more interesting one — Where next for the book?
To see where books might be going, we must think of them as objects that have experienced a long history of experimentation and play. Rather than bemoaning the death of books or creating a dichotomy between print and digital media, this guide points to continuities, positioning the book as a changing technology and highlighting the way artists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have pushed us to rethink and redefine the term. (pp. xiii-xiv)
In The Book, the future is not far from the physical past. Where once we had text on scrolls, now we scroll through text (albeit more vertically than horizontally). Where once human consciousness changed with the invention of the alphabet and writing, now it may be altering with our reading and writing through networked digital devices. Like the many historians before her, Borsuk starts with cuneiform (those wedge-shaped accounting marks on baked clay), hieroglyphics and the invention of the alphabet to set the scene for the advent of the book and its ongoing physicality:
its shape (scroll, accordion, codex)
its material (papyrus, vellum, paper, charcoal or mineral-based watercolor and ink)
its manufacture (scribing, printing by woodblock and movable type, design and typography, illumination and illustration, folding into pages, methods of binding)
its constituent and navigational parts (cover, book block, title page, table of contents, page numbering, index).
But Borsuk reminds us — from Sumer’s clay to Amazon’s Kindle, from Johannes Gutenberg to Project Gutenberg — the book as human artifact exists in a social, political, technological, economic and even ecological context. Who is allowed to make it, how it is transacted, how and where we use it, how we perceive and speak of it — all have affected the physicality of the book object and are reflected in it.
In the first half of The Book, Borsuk steers us through these interdependencies to a turning point. That turning point is where the pinnacle of the book arts — Beatrice Warde‘s and Jan Tschichold‘s vision of the book as a crystalline container of content — and the book’s commodification combine to cause the book’s physicality to disappear because it is so taken for granted, leaving us with “the book as idea”.
With the perception that books are ideas bestowed on readers by an authorial genius whose activity is purely intellectual, the book’s object status vanished for much of the reading public as we raised a glass to happily consume its contents…. Even though innumerable material elements come together to make the book, these features have been naturalized to such a degree that we now hardly notice them, since we have come to see content as the copyrightable, consumable, marketable aspect of the work. (pp. 106-9)
At this turning point — where “the historic relationship between materiality and text is severed” (p. 112) — the second half of The Book introduces book art. It is telling that the longest chapter in the book begins the second half, that it is called “The Book as Idea” and that it comes before any extended engagement with the digital dematerialization of the book. It is a wry pivot: the artistic genius supplants the authorial genius; what the latter takes as invisible background, the former re-makes as self-regarding foreground. As Borsuk shows and her book’s cover neatly demonstrates, works of book art are inevitably self-referential and self-aware.
As such, works of book art
have much to teach us about the changing nature of the book, in part because they highlight the “idea” by paradoxically drawing attention to the “object” we have come to take for granted. They disrupt our treatment of the book as a transparent container for literary and aesthetic “content” and engage its material form in the work’s meaning. (p. 113)
Rather than offer a chronological history of book art to explore what “artists’ books have to teach us about a path forward for the book”, Borsuk offers “flashpoints” that represent “the energies motivating artwork in book form”(p. 117). These “flashpoints” are William Blake, Stéphane Mallarmé, Ed Ruscha and Ulises Carrión. Following these flashpoints, Borsuk organizes the rest of the chapter into “key themes that recur throughout artists’ books of the twentieth century: spatiotemporal play, animation, recombinant structures, ephemerality, silence, and interactivity” (pp. 146-47).
Oddly, Blake as flashpoint does not illuminate these six particular themes. Rather Borsuk notes three other recurrent themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form” that Blake and his work represent: centering or re-centering the production processes on the author/artist; using the book as a sociopolitical and visionary platform; and redefining, developing and challenging the relationship between word and image.
Blake refers to himself as “The Author & Printer W. Blake,” making clear the union of creativity and craft in his work. (p. 121)
Blake’s engagement with the social issues of his day, and his use of book form to respond to child labor, urban squalor, and slavery, established an important trend in both artists’ books and independent publishing—the utility of the book as a means of spreading social justice. (pp. 121, 124)
Blake used his craftsmanship to develop the relationship between word and image (p. 140)
One need not look far among twentieth and twenty-first century book artists for resonance with those themes. That Blakean union of creativity and craft resurfaces in artists such as Ken Campbell (UK), Cathryn Miller (Canada), Pien Rotterdam (Netherlands), Barb Tetenbaum (US) and Xu Bing (China) — some of them even to the point of carving or setting their own type, making their own paper, pulp printing on it themselves or binding the finished work themselves. Vision and sociopolitical observation have risen up in the works of artists such as Doug Beube (Canada), Julie K. Dodd (UK), Basia Irland (US), Diane Jacobs (US), Anselm Kiefer (Germany) and Chris Ruston (UK). Blake’s redefining the relationship of word (or text) to image often reappears in book artists’ abcedaries and their children’s books such as A Dictionary Storyby Sam Winston (UK). As for emulators of Blake in technical innovation, consider the analogue example of Australian Tim Mosely’s works created with his patented pulp printing process, where the “ink” is actually colored pulp, or the digital example of Borsuk’s work Between Page and Screen, where the pages contain no text—only QR codes that, when scanned with a webcam, activate the text’s appearance on the reader’s browser screen.
For her second flashpoint, Borsuk selects another visionary, Stéphane Mallarmé, who like Blake was reacting to his own perceived Satanic mills draining poetry of its spirituality. Mallarmé’s Satanic mills dispensed rigid columns of newsprint to the masses and bland expanses of poetry and fiction set by Linotype machines in the neo-classical Didot font. With his famous visionary dictum — “everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book” (p. 135) — Mallarmé nudged the book toward pure concept and opened its mystical covers to the Dadaists, Surrealists, Futurists, Vorticists, Lettrists, Conceptualists and biblioclasts. With spatiotemporal play — mixing type sizes and fonts, breaking up the line and even breaking the page — Mallarmé used text to evoke image and, in his view, remake the book as a “spiritual instrument”. His post-humous book-length poem Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), published in 1897, embodies that vision and continues to cast its flashpoint light across multiple generations of book artists’ efforts. From Marcel Broodthaers in 1969, we have his homage to Un Coup de Dés. From Jérémie Bennequin in 2014, we have his serial “omage” to Broodthaers’ homage. And, most recently, we have the 2015 new bilingual edition A Roll of the Dice by Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno, for which Borsuk provides a perceptive reading.
Where Mallarmé’s flashpoint enlisted his vision alongside the cry “épater le bourgeois” from Baudelaire and other late nineteenth-century poets, Ed Ruscha’s later flashpoint illuminates a democratic counterpoint, a Zen-like vision and a very different way of changing the relationship of text to image. Ruscha’s self-published photobooks were cheap and distributed outside the gallery-controlled channels of art. As Borsuk shows — directly with Ruscha and indirectly with the many book artists influenced by him — the text is restricted to the book’s title, which interacts with a series of deadpan photos and their layout to deliver a wry, tongue-in-cheek work of book art. Ruscha’s spatiotemporal play manifests itself across the accordion book format and out-of-sequence juxtapositions. Ironically Ruscha’s works now command thousands of dollars per copy, and one has more chance of seeing them in an exhibition than in a roadside stop’s rack of newspapers, magazines and mass-market paperbacks.
Mexico’s Ulises Carrión — polemicist, European bookshop owner, conceptual artist and Borsuk’s fourth choice of flashpoints — is a counter-flashpoint to Ruscha. Where Ruscha reveled in self-publishing commodification, Carrión sneered at the book in its traditional commercial form. Where Ruscha has resisted the label “conceptual artist”, Carrión played the role to the hilt. Where Ruscha’s work has elicited numerous homages (see Various Small Books from MIT Press in 2013) and achieved a high profile, Carrión’s work, much lower in profile, has provided a more compelling range of hooks or influences on which to hang many different manifestations of book art (or bookworks as Carrión preferred). In fact, Borsuk’s six stated key themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form” come from Carrión’s manifestos (pp. 146-47).
The first theme — “spatiotemporal play” — comes from Carrión’s initial definition of the book as a “sequence of spaces”, which Borsuk traces to tunnel books, pop-ups and even large-scale constructs, the latter illustrated by American Alison Knowles‘ inhabitable The Big Book (1968). One more possible future of the book implied by spatiotemporal play manifests itself in Borsuk’s own augmented-reality (AR) works, those of Caitlin Fisher (Canada) and Carla Gannis’ Selfie Drawings (2016), in which portraits on the hardcover book’s pages animate and change when viewed through smartphone or tablet.
Borsuk takes the second theme, that of “animation”, from Carrión’s dictum: “Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment— a book is also a sequence of moments”. As her several examples illustrate, much book art is cinematic. Borsuk’s exposition of Canadian Michael Snow‘s Cover to Cover (1975) comes closest to reproducing the experience I enjoyed of “watching” that photo bookwork from cover to cover several times at the now closed Corcoran Art Gallery. Borsuk is quick and right to remind that the cinematic future of the book has been with us for a long time, even before the cinema. She bookends her exposition of Snow’s book and and the text animation of American Emmett Williams‘ Sweethearts (1967) on one side with Victorian flip-books and on the other with American Bob Brown‘s 1930s TheReadies (presumably pronounced “reedies” to follow Brown’s comparison of his scrolling one-line texts with the cinema’s “talkies”).
A forgotten modernist, Brown declared the obsolescence of the book, predicted a new form of reading and technology to enable it, an optical projector emitting text into the ether and directly into the eyeball. But what does this tell us about the future of the book? Borsuk notes Craig Saper‘s resurrection of Brown’s Roving Eye Press and how he even put together a website that emulates Brown’s reading machine. In her phrase describing the machine’s effect of “turning readers themselves into a kind of machine for making meaning” (p. 168), Borsuk hints at a future of digitally interactive books, which she takes up in the next section and more extensively in the next chapter. At this point, however, the reader could use a hint of practicality and skepticism. Linear-one-word-at-a-time reading, however accelerated, eliminates affordances of the page, ignores graphics and strains against the combination of peripheral vision and rapid eye movement we unconsciously (even atavistically?) deploy as we “read” whatever we see. Although in the next section Borsuk does bring on more likely examples of the book’s future exploitation of its cinematic affordances (manga, graphic novels and children’s books), this section’s treatment of animation misses the chance to cite actual recent successes like Moonbot Studios‘ The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2012) and others.
Once into the third theme — “recombinant structure” — it is clear that Borsuk’s chosen Carriónesque themes overlap one another. Like the cinematic, the recombinant structure manifests itself in accordion books. It extends, however, to something more interactive: volvelles (or medieval apps as Erik Kwakkel calls them), interactive pop-ups, harlequinades (flap books) and more. Borsuk uses Raymond Queneau‘s harlequinade Cent mille milliards de poèmes ( One hundred thousand billion poems, 1961), Dieter Roth‘s slot books and works by Carolee Schneemann to illustrate book art’s celebration of the concept. The fact that Queneau’s book is still easily available on Amazon vouches for book art’s predictive qualities. The example of Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 (Éditions du Seuil, 1962), “a box of 150 leaves printed on only one side that the reader is instructed to shuffle at the outset”, goes Queneau one better —ironically. In 2011, Visual Editions reissued Composition No. 1 in print and app forms. Alas, the former is out of print, and the latter is no longer available for download.
Borsuk draws her fourth theme — ephemerality — from Carrión’s dictum:
I firmly believe that every book that now exists will eventually disappear. And I see here no reason for lamentation. Like any other living organism, books will grow, multiply, change color, and, eventually, die. At the moment, bookworks represent the final phase of this irrevocable process. Libraries, museums, archives are the perfect cemeteries for books. (p. 145)
To illustrate, Borsuk begins with the physical biblioclasts — those who in Doug Beube‘s phrase are “breaking the codex“. They include Beube himself, Bruce Nauman (see above), Brian Dettmer, Cai Guo-Qiang, Marcel Duchamp, Dieter Roth and Xu Bing. While some of these artists reflect a twenty-first century surge of interest in altered books and book sculpture, “facilitated by the overarching notion that the book is an artifact not long for this world” (pp.82-84), others have taken a more generative archaeological approach — erasing or cutting away a book’s words to reveal another. Examples include Tom Phillips‘ A Humument (1966-2014) and Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes(2010). Phillips’ bookwork serves multiple purposes for Borsuk’s arguments. Not only does it represent the book art of “erasure”, its success across multiple editions, digital formats and presence in art galleries supports her notion of book art’s predictive qualities.
There is a variant on her theme that Borsuk does not illustrate and is worth consideration for her next edition: the self-destructing yet regenerative work of book art. Examples could include American Basia Irland‘s series ICE BOOKS: Ice receding/Books reseeding (2007-), which gives a formidably tangible and new meaning to “publishing as dissemination”; and Canadian Cathryn Miller‘s tail-chasing Recomp (2014); and Argentinian Pequeño Editor‘sMi Papa Estuvo en la Selva (2015), which after reading can be planted to grow into a jacaranda tree.
The last section in this chapter expands on the fifth theme — silence — drawn from Carrión’s statement:
The most beautiful and perfect book in the world is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of a man can say. Every book of the new art is searching after that book of absolute whiteness in the same way that every poem searches for silence. Ulises Carrión, Second Thoughts (1980), pp. 15-16.
Among her several examples are Pamela Paulsrud‘s Touchstones (2007-10), which look like stones but are books sanded-down into stone-like shapes, and Scott McCarney‘s 1988 Never Read(Opposed to Ever Green), a sculpture composed of stacked library discards that narrows as it ascends. Paulsrud’s, McCarney’s, Irland’s and Miller’s works are what Borsuk calls “muted objects”, but they speak and signify nevertheless:
Muted books take on a totemic [metaphoric] significance…. The language of the book as a space of fixity, certainty, and order reminds us that the book has been transmuted into an idea and ideal based on the role it plays in culture…. Defining the book involves consideration for its use as much as its form. (pp. 193-95)
Borsuk is a superb stylist of the sentence and expository structure. The words above, concluding chapter three, launch the reader into Borsuk’s final theme of interactivity and her unifying metaphor: “the book as interface”. Owners of Kindles, buyers from Amazon, perusers of Facebook — we may think we know what’s coming next in The Book and for the book, but Borsuk pushes the reader to contemplate the almost real-time evolutionary change we have seen with ebook devices and apps, audiobooks, the ascension of books to the cloud via Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive and Google Books, and their descent to Brewster Kahle‘s physical back-up warehouse (to be sited in Canada in light of recent political events) and into flattening ebook sales of late. Chapter 4 is a hard-paced narrative of the book’s digital history from the Memex in Vannevar Bush‘s 1945 classic “As we may think” to T.L. Uglow‘s 100-author blockchain collaboration in 2017, A Universe Explodes from Visual Editions’ series Editions at Play.
Borsuk reminds us:
Our current moment appears to be much like the first centuries of movable type, a cusp. Just as manuscript books persisted into the Gutenberg era, books currently exist in multiple forms simultaneously: as paperbacks, audiobooks, EPUB downloads, and, in rare cases, interactive digital experiences. (p. 244)
Borsuk weaves into this moment of the book’s future a reminder that print affordances such as tactility (or the haptic) and the paratextual (those peripheral elements like page numbers, running heads, ISBNs, etc., that Gary Frost argues “make the book a book”) have been finding fresh ways into the way we read digitally. The touchscreen enables us to read between the lines literally in the novella Pry (2014) by Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizaro (2014). Breathe (2018) by Kate Pullinger, another work in the Editions at Play series, uses GPS to detect and insert the reader’s location, the time and weather, and when the reader tilts the device or rubs the screen, hidden messages from the story’s (the reader’s?) ghosts appear.
At this point, an earlier passage from The Book should haunt the reader:
Artists’ books continually remind us of the reader’s role in the book by forcing us to reckon with its materiality and, by extension, our own embodiment. Such experiments present a path forward for digital books, which would do well to consider the affordances of their media and the importance of the reader, rather than treating the e-reader as a Warde-ian crystal goblet for the delivery of content. (p. 147)
Borsuk convinces. Art, artifact, concept — wrought by hand and mind, hands and minds — the book is our consensual tool and toy for surviving beyond our DNA. So now what? Metaphor, hints and historical flashpoints may illuminate where we have been, how it shows up in contemporary books and book art and where we may be going with it. In ten or one hundred years though, how will a book publisher become a book publisher? Given the self-publishing capability today’s technology offers, will anyone with a file on a home computer and an internet connection consider himself or herself a book publisher? Borsuk thinks not:
The act of publication — of making public — is central to our cultural definition of the book. Publication might presume some cultural capital: some editorial body has deemed this work worthy of print. It might also presume an audience: a readership clamors for this text. But on a fundamental level, publication presumes the appendage of elements outside the text that help us recognize it as a book, even when published in digital form. (pp. 239-40)
How will future book publishers learn to master the appendage of these elements outside the text (the paratext) that make a book a book “even when published in digital form”? Borsuk’s commentary on the ISBN as one of these elements sheds oblique light on that. She points to the artist Fiona Banner’s uses of the ISBN under her imprint/pseudonym Vanity Press — tattooing one one her lower back, publishing a series Book 1/1(2009) consisting of sixty-five ISBN’d pieces of mirrored cardstock and then collecting them in a photobook entitled ISBN 978-1-907118-99-9 in order to deposit those one-offs with the British Library as required by the UK’s Legal Deposit Libraries Act. What can a future ebook publisher deduce from this?
That the use of a globally unique identifier (GUID) matters.
The backstory of the transition from ISBN10 to ISBN13 and that of ebooks, ISBNs and Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) might provide interesting fodder. The notion that the book industry was running out of 10-digit ISBNs was a red herring used to convince industry executives to adopt the more widely used format of unique identifiers overseen by GS1. The real reason for moving to ISBN13 — reduced friction in the supply chain — was too hard to sell. About the same time, some major publishers proposed incorporating the ISBN into the DOI for an industry-standard ebook identifier. The DOI offered an existing digital, networked infrastructure already being used by most of the world’s scientific, technical and medical journals publishers. It is an offshoot of the Handle System, established by Robert Kahn. Sad to say, few book publishers adopted the DOI for their ebooks; still fewer used the DOI’s application- and network-friendliness to enable their ebooks to take advantage of the network’s digital affordances.
The DOI shares with the ISBN a feature that Borsuk points out as a limitation to more widespread use: it is not free. A significant percentage of ebooks exist without ISBNs, much less DOIs. If a digital GUID is to be used in ways that help us recognize the identified digital object as a book, future book publishers and their providers of a network ecosystem supporting ebooks, linking with the print ecosystem and reducing friction in the supply chain still have wide gaps in commerce and knowledge to close. Perhaps this particular paratextual element is unnecessary for the book’s digital future, but until those gaps are narrowed, the ecosystem for eBooks will remain balkanized by Amazon, Apple, Google, Lulu and the more digitally literate denizen of the print publishing industry. In the meantime, as Borsuk’s examples throughout her book show, there are boundless other print and digital affordances with which publishers, authors, editors, designers, typographers, developers and readers can play as they continue to shape the book.
The Book‘s publication month, June 2018, is auspicious, being the same for the Getty Center’s exhibition “Artists and Their Books/Books and Their Artists“, June 26 – October 28. The Center and MIT Press would do well to have stacks of The Book on hand. The Book will also serve as an excellent introductory textbook for courses on book art or the history of the book. And by virtue of its style and artist’s perspective, Borsuk’s book will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in this essential technology of civilization and its growing role as a material and focus of art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Renée Riese Hubert and Judd D. Hubert’s The Cutting Edge of Reading: Artists’ Books (Granary Books, 1999) is a signal work of appreciation and analysis of book art. Nearly twenty years on, it can be read and appreciated itself more vibrantly with a web browser open alongside it.
To facilitate that for others, here follows a linked version of the bibliography in The Cutting Edge of Reading — a “webliography”. Because web links do break, multiple, alternative links per entry and permanent links from libraries, repositories and collections have been used wherever possible. These appear in the captions as well as the text entries. Also included are links to videos relating to the works or the artists. At the end of the webliography, links for finding copies of The Cutting Edge (now out of print) are provided.
Between Page and Screen (2012) Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse Website: Accessed 16 May 2014. Book: Perfect bound, H178 x W179 mm, 44 pages. Acquired 16 May 2014.
Between Page and Screen chronicles a love affair between the characters, P and S…. The book has no words, only inscrutable black and white geometric patterns that — when seen by a webcam — conjure the written word. Reflected on screen, the reader sees himself with open book in hand, language springing alive and shape-shifting with each turn of the page. The story unfolds through a playful and cryptic exchange of letters between P and S as they struggle to define their relationship. Rich with innuendo, anagrams, etymological and sonic affinities between words, Between Page and Screen revels in language and the act of reading.Publisher’s description.
The finitude of a bound codex quite literally defines its limits in analogue form. Even … gesturing outward to the world of lived and imagined phenomena that comprise a shared realm of cultural knowledge, the book’s dimensions remain linked to its physical form. But where is such a book located in the spatial-temporal realms of networked environments? And when is a work produced? … Borsuk and Bouse’s depends on a linked connection between quick response (QR) codes on pages and files stored online. The capacity to conjure stored material that projects itself in augmented screens onto the perceived world further erodes the boundaries of interior/exterior edge and periphery that were traditionally defining features of an aesthetic work.
Between Page and Screen has been displayed in exhibitions such as “The Art of Reading (18 November 2017 — 4 March 2018)” held at the Meermanno Museum in The Hague. Unusually, at that exhibition, the art was not simply on display. Touching was allowed. Paul van Capelleveen, one of the curators organizing the show, insisted that each work be touchable. As a curator at the Dutch national library and advisor to the Meermanno, he felt strongly that the challenges of multimodal literacy cannot be understood “under glass”. Apparently, the market agrees: Between Page and Screen is now in its second edition.
Created for the November 2016 issue of The Bellingham Review, “Abra: The Kinetic Page” is a polymorphic tour de force – online prose poem, video, review of and homage to an installation at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, WA, in 2014 and a promotion of the artists’ book Abra: The Living Bookby Kate Durbin, Amaranth Borsuk and Ian Hatcher, published in 2014.
From where did such work spring? From a project called “Expanded Artists’ Books: Envisioning the Future of the Book”. Inspired by the advent of the iPad in 2009 and a symposium held in 2011 with Bob Stein, Director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, Steve Woodall, then Director of Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper Arts, secured funding for that project from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012. Woodall later explained the intent of the project in that same workshop where Johanna Drucker drew attention to Between Page and Screen:
In its first phase, our project takes existing artist books and creates iPad applications that both represent and contextualise them. The apps will be made available as free downloads. With the many millions of portable devices running on the iOS platform, the reasoning goes that an under-distributed and too-obscure art form can gain wider reach and achieve greater public awareness. We will soon expand to include Android and other platforms, but we expect to stay within the ‘walled garden’ world of the app, as opposed to the open range of a purely browser-based platform – we feel that the smoother functionality and higher-quality user experience of the app work well with the expanded practices of authorship and craft engagement that define artist books.
In the project’s second phase we shall commission media artists to create born-digital artist book/apps, which will then be reverse engineered as physical books, or created in parallel with them. Owing to the creative countercharge it represents, we find this to be an extremely interesting phase of the project from a research standpoint.
It is the dialogue between the physical books and their digital avatars that provides a great part of the value of this project. … it is in the artist’s studio, whether that be an electronic workstation or a more traditional book art studio, where the dialogue will play out in the creative process. Artists will explore ways in which expression can take both virtual and physical manifestations, examining the advantages of each and how the interplay between the two can be leveraged to provide a comprehensive and powerful expression. Woodall, “Artists, Writers and the Future of the Book“.
Abra was funded by a grant from this project, and with Abra, Borsuk, Durbin and Hatcher have manifestly “embodied” the sponsor’s intent as will become clear as you read. But pause first on Borsuk’s Bellingham Review piece.
Borsuk is an inspired writer, a gifted conceptual and haptic artist. “Abra: The Kinetic Page” starts as a reflection on experiencing Ann Hamilton’s installation the common SENSE with its exploration and celebration of “touch”:
As I walked through the upper galleries, where newsprint images of the undersides of birds and small animals fluttered in the HVAC breeze, I thought about the way the exhibit invited us to read space. Hamilton’s juxtapositions, like the lines of a poem, rely on the visitor to bridge the between with their body. We provide the spark that leaps across the enjambed line where the tale of Cock Robin meets a downy hide.
I’ve strayed from what I wanted to tell you because Hamilton’s work requires it. It is, as she says, a form of attention she seeks to share with her audience—she creates installations as spaces animated by the viewer. She sets up the conditions for an experience or interaction, and then withdraws, trusting the reader / viewer / visitor to make meaning. To limn the contours of the work with their own gentle touch.
○ [Now note here how she pivots to experiencing Abra.]
As I trace my finger along Abra’s cover, whose title is also the incipit, silently voiced by the reader, which activates the text, I’m invoking not only the magic word that brings things to pass as they are spoken, I’m invoking Hamilton, whose “handseeing” videos of the late 90s and early 2000s turn the fingertip into an eye, uniting reading and writing in a gesture that links dactyl and stylus, through the digital that fits like pen in glove.
Whether read on screen or heard in the video, Borsuk’s words and sentences are tactile. Listen:
Click on the image above for the video “Abra: The Kinetic Page” by Amaranth Borsuk
“Abra: The Kinetic Page” explores and celebrates the “fundamental relationship between the eye, the brain, and, critically, the hand” as Woodall hoped. It is a work of art as much as Abra itself.
If its artistry were not enough, The Bellingham Review piece takes things a bit further than might have been expected from the “Expanded Artists’ Book” project. Interestingly, The Bellingham Review piece also addresses changes in the value chain that hybrid books and hybrid book art must confront. As originally set out by Harvard’s Michael Porter, the value chain is the “set of activities that a firm operating in a specific industry performs in order to deliver a valuable product or service for the market.” Marketing is one of those key activities in the set. In The Bellingham Review, an online and print literary magazine, Borsuk has found not only a platform for marketing Abra, but a platform from which to offer a complementary work of art in the form of a video. An example of “art for art’s sake” that finally makes sense to the business school.
The example does not end there. Reflecting in the Tate Britain workshop on the “Expanded Artist Book” project, Woodall remarked on “digitally trained designers … being drawn back to the fundamental relationship between the eye, the brain, and, critically, the hand, … photographers … combining digital processes with nineteenth-century ‘alternative’ techniques. … [and] … the enthusiasm most contemporary graphic designers have for letterpress printing.” Web skills, videographics and the YouTube/Vimeo channels are just as remarkably important, which is clear not only from the Abrasite, The Bellingham Review piece but from this shorter directly promotional video:
Abra: A Living Text Video editing by Louis Mayo Shot by Nathan Evers at the Digital Future Lab, University of Washington, Bothell Music: Graham Bole, “We Are One”
Woodall did wonder whether the project’s prompting a dialogue of the physical and digital would have implications for practical matters such as distribution. While Abra has a paperback version as an entry in the traditional channels to market, that offers little insight into such implications — not like the insight realized by the combination of website, promotional video and The Bellingham Review piece.
In fact, from a perspective of craft and product, the experience promised by the videos and website is completely available only if you download the app and have a copy of the limited edition of the artists’ book. Constructed by Amy Rabas, the artists’ book allows you to insert an iPad in the back of the book creating a continuous touch-screen interface. This interactivity with the reader is one more aspect of the work that realizes perhaps more than was expected from the “Expanded Artists’ Book” project.
The book’s simple, mysterious foil-stamped cover. Created by book artist Amy Rabas. Courtesy of the artists.
The laser-cut openings coalesce into a pinhole that begins to reveal the iPad below. Courtesy of the artists.
Readers can begin to interact with the iPad, on which the book’s text is mutating on its own. Courtesy of the artists.
At the end of the book, the iPad is revealed, and the reader can make Abra their own using the menu at the top of the screen to “Mutate,” “Erase,” “Graft,” “Prune,” and cast an unpredictable “Cadabra” spell. Courtesy of the artists.
With its poems mutating on the iPad screen, Abra challenges the play with boundedness beyond the effect Drucker explained when describing Between Page and Screen in 2012. In its digital challenge to boundedness, Abra has much in common with Visual Editions’ reimagining of Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 in an app format. The original work was published by Le Seuil in 1962 and translated by Richard Howard for Simon & Schuster the next year.
Marc Saporta Composition No. 1 Translated by Richard Howard Redesigned and reissued by Visual Editions (2011). Photo: Books On Books Collection.
Composition No. 1 (the app) Marc Saporta, Composition No. 1 Diagrams by Salvador Plascencia, Designed by Universal Everything (2011). Photo: Books On Books Collection.
Introduction by T.L. Uglow, Google Creative Lab and YouTube (2011). Photo: Books On Books Collection.
The unboundedness of Abra also has echoes in Field, the book, visual art and installation all in one produced by Johannes Heldén about the same time as Abra and The Bellingham Review piece. Field‘s interactivity, however, relies on a floor touchscreen of 20 square meters, one effect of which is to remove words from pages projected on a screen and another to animate a series of sculptural mutations of the Eurasian Jackdaw. The ephemerality of an installation combined with the effective of personal interactivity intensifies the challenge and play of unboundedness.
Johannes Heldén Field (2015) Produced and premiered at HUMlab, Umeå University. Screenshot: Courtesy of the artist.
Which brings us full circle to the installation-inspired “Abra: The Kinetic Page” and the last aspect of Abra: The Living Text that carries it beyond the expectations of the “Expanded Artists’ Book”. The work began as a collaborative book-length poem between Borsuk and Durbin. Writing separately using a series of constraints, then weaving their words together and editing them side by side, the authors found a new voice emerging from the conjoined poem, that of ABRA herself. To give a body to that voice, they created a series of conjoined costumes, each an avatar reflecting various aspects of the poems.
Abra Woodnymph Courtesy of the artists.
When I hear sad tales of “The End of Books“, I think of these artists and authors and the distances between them – Borsuk in Washington State, Durbin in southern California, Hatcher in New York, Hamilton in Ohio, Rabas and Woodall in Illinois and Heldén in Sweden. Then I look at the distance between my finger and screen, between my hand and the copy of Borsuk’s Between Page and Screen lying on the table here. Those sad tales fade before the palpable vibrancy of book art and the transformative effect of the digital.
Abra features in Anne Royston’s piece on the media-bending of book art today at the College Book Art Association’s site.
See also Borsuk’s “Books and Bodies“, Cuaderno Waldhuter, August 2020. Accessed 25 September 2020.
And finally, see Borsuk’s The Book (MIT Press, 2018).
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”.
Antaya, Christine and Sloman, Paul. Book Art: Iconic Sculptures and Installations Made from Books. Gestalten (May 26, 2011). Documents current art, installation, and design created with and from books. “The fascinating range of examples in Book Art is eloquent proof that–despite or because of digital media’s inroads as sources of text information–the book’s legacy as an object and a carrier of ideas and communication is being expanded today in the creative realm.” Book jacket. See interview with Antaya and some of the artists here.
The Book as Instrument: Stephane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book, and the Transformation of Print Culture – Anna Sigridur Arnar. An academic study of the literary and cultural seedbed of book art. “This is a highly ambitious, original account of Stéphane Mallarmé’s lifelong engagement with the book and the vast network of forces (cultural, aesthetic, political) that both informed this engagement and were transformed by it. Anna Sigrídur Arnar seamlessly brings together divergent areas of inquiry in order to support the idea that the book was and remains a site of numerous debates about democracy, public and private space, the uses of art and print, and the role of authors and readers. The Book as Instrument is elegantly written, in engaging and highly readable prose. Arnar succeeds in presenting and analyzing with remarkable lucidity ideas that many of us have learned to approach as difficult and thus nearly off-limits. This will be an important work of scholarship for a variety of disciplines.” (Willa Z. Silverman, Pennsylvania State University).
A Century of Artists Books — Riva Castleman. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994. NAL pressmark: AB.94.0020. A catalog of an exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The selection tends toward the livre d’artiste but does address the impact of the digital shift on artists’ books.
The Century of Artists Books – Johanna Drucker. “A folded fan, a set of blocks, words embedded in lucite: artists’ books are a singular form of imaginative expression. With the insight of the artist and the discernment of the art historian, Drucker details over 200 of these works, relating them to the variety of art movements of the last century and tracing their development in form and concept. This work, one of the first full-length studies available of artists’ books, provides both a critical analysis of the structures themselves and a basis for further reflection on the philosophical and conceptual roles they play. From codex to document, from performance to self-image, the world of artists’ books is made available to student and teacher, collector and connoisseur. A useful work for all art collections, both public and academic.”Paula Frosch, Metropolitan Museum of Art Library, Library Journal.
Artists’ Books on Tour – Kathrin Pokorny-Nagel. Catalog of a travelling exhibition organized and sponsored by MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna), MGLC (Llubljana’s International Centre of Graphic Arts) and UPM (Museum of Decorative Arts) in 2011.
The Book As Art – Krystyna Wasserman; Audrey Niffenegger (Text by); Johanna Drucker (Text by). An illustrated volume covering over 100 artists books held in the permanent collection of the Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.