Bookmarking Book Art — Math Monahan

Math Monahan’s installation Specimen could hardly be more appropriate for the attention of Books on Books.


[ 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 image above is one of a mesmerizing series on Monahan’s site.  It is like looking at photographs of deep-sea creatures or slides of microscopic organisms or impressions of fossils.  Like snorkeling or diving for the first time in strange waters, it is beautiful, exhilarating and a bit scary.  Reflecting on the images, however, the words fixed alongside them (quoted above) are humorous, wistful and, in the end, a bit scary.  The book, evolution, extinction?

Monahan is enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, whose library was one of the original five library partners in the Google Library Print Project that began in 2004.  Last 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, 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 the scholars] … to investigate cultural trends quantitatively” (Science, 14 January 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6014 pp. 176-182, DOI: 10.1126/science.1199644).   By tracking the references in the books to years, they created plots for each year between 1875 and 1975:

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.  Cue, Socrates and Phaedrus:

Soc. I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

And yet, we have Socrates’ words and thoughts because Plato chose to write them down, Benjamin Jowett to translate them, countless others to cite them, now one to cut and paste them and others to read them.  Like Monahan’s other series, Braided Books, this exploration seems to be unbraiding itself, but is that braiding and unbraiding toward forgetfulness and extinction or memory and renewal?