Sunday, November 21, 2010

Now you are aware of me!: Some comments on the value of books as objects

From top down: a page from the Book of Kells (page found here); a page from Tom Phillips' "treated novel," A Humument (its history is here; the image was found here); the interior of Jonathan Safran Foer's January 2011 release, Tree of Codes (image found here).

And when I would have to look at them day after day, each with his and her secret and selfish thought, and blood strange to each other blood and strange to mine, and think that this seemed to be the only way I could get ready to stay dead, I would hate my father for having ever planted me. I would look forward to the times when they faulted, so I could whip them. When the switch fell I could feel it upon my flesh; when it welted and ridged it was my blood that ran, and I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever.

* * *

And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forgot the words. Like Cora, who could never even cook.
--Addie Bundren, from As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

I think Addie would have hated the idea of the Kindle or the Nook. (Bear with me. This makes sense in my head . . . ) Her despair regarding the abyss between words and the deeds they "say at" (her phrase) is akin to the experience I feel at times when reading a text off a screen as compared to reading it off a sheet of paper. Even the ability, in this digital mode, to cut and paste a word or phrase or pages and pages of text just isn't the same thing as holding a piece of paper with words on it, underlining or circling those words or, as I often have occasion to do, re-type words in physical books into electronic documents of whatever sort. I'm not sure why that is, but a clue might possibly be here, worth reproducing in full (emphasis added):
O.E. rædan (W.Saxon), redan (Anglian) "to explain, read, rule, advise" (related to ræd, red "advice"), from P.Gmc. *raedanan (cf. O.N. raða, O.Fris. reda, Du. raden, O.H.G. ratan, Ger. raten "to advise, counsel, guess"), from PIE base *rei- "to reason, count" (cf. Skt. radh- "to succeed, accomplish," Gk. arithmos "number amount," O.C.S. raditi "to take thought, attend to," O.Ir. im-radim "to deliberate, consider"). Connected to riddle via notion of "interpret."

Words from this root in most modern Germanic languages still mean "counsel, advise." Transference to "understand the meaning of written symbols" is unique to O.E. and (perhaps under English influence) O.N. raða. Most languages use a word rooted in the idea of "gather up" as their word for "read" (cf. Fr. lire, from L. legere). Sense of "make out the character of (a person)" is attested from 1610s. The noun meaning "an act of reading" is recorded from 1825. Read up "study" is from 1842; read-only in computer jargon is recorded from 1961.

To be sure, most of the work of reading is intellectual; still, at some level for me the idea of reading as a partly-physical activity is important, too. At its best, the reading experience requires a held object that bears the weight of the ink that appears in the shapes of the words I'm reading. The book is the container of gathered language; even more important, those words themselves have a basic material existence, thereby making them ever so slightly less abstract than they would be otherwise.

I don't want to lose the physicality of reading that holding a book imposes on the reader. Something important, even fundamental about reading itself would thereby be lost.

Maybe we won't. Moreover, there's reason to hope that we won't. That's what this post and the one to follow will explore in my usual meandering fashion.

Some initial thoughts below the fold.

A while ago, in the comments on this post, my long-time online friend Kári spoke of scrolls and books as modes of delivery for texts, noting that the act of reading text off a computer screen is something of a throwback to how readers of scrolls encountered texts. Meanwhile, Kindles and Nooks attempt to imitate electronically the experience of reading a paper text . . . even as, ironically, it's pretty easy to find articles these days not so much wondering if books will disappear as taking bets on when they'll disappear.

With my usual think-from-the-hip manner, when that discussion was going on I thought, "I love books as objects, and my local Barnes & Noble's been so crowded the past few times I've visited that it's no longer convenient to just sit among the stacks and read as I once did, so of course books will live on." But, keep in mind, that statement comes from someone who misses rotary-dial telephones. But my recently learning of the coming release of Foer's audacious experiment not just with text but with our basic assumptions about what the physical surface of a page should look like has caused me to think a little more about the question of book as objects, what sort of thinking would lead to their demise, and what might keep them alive.

That we're even having discussions about the death of books is due precisely to their resounding success as designed objects: as I noted in my most recent post, good design doesn't call attention to itself; the vast, vast majority of books have no need to call attention to their mass in order to function well, much less to be taken into consideration as helping shape a text's meaning. In fact, as I tell my students, you know you have a good book when you forget that you're reading a book. Obviously, though, that sort of thinking is what leads to death-of-the-book talk: if what matters is the text, why not dispense with the physical object?

What might help keep books alive is revisiting their design, by which I mean our basic assumptions about what the physical surfaces of the book-as-object "should" look like. But in this instance, rather than making the interaction between reader and object as frictionless as possible, those books whose physical attributes call attention to themselves in such as way as to cause the reader to revisit the fundamental subject of the reading dynamic itself as it applies to that book--those books might just rejuvenate interest in (or at least subconsciously remind us) of books' inherent value as objects in their own right and not meaningless containers of words. The mere existence of something as materially audacious as Foer's new book by someone with Foer's prominence is itself evidence enough, I'd say, that publishers aren't quite ready to give up on physical books as a medium; in truth, though, for the past ten or so years there's been a fair number of books by major publishers that, in various ways, compel their readers to think about books as objects.

This makes me happy.

In the next post, we'll have a look at some recent books whose designs, it seems to me, are part of their respective texts' messages.


R. Sherman said...

I'm an unabashed Luddite when in comes to modern "book" reading. Sorry, but I'm a sit in chair, crack the book with a pencil in my shirt pocket to underline things and write comments in the margins. Kindles and whatnot will never replace that.


John B. said...

No need to apologize, Randall. I'm firmly in your camp. Physical books don't need batteries, either. They are potentially seductive, though. A co-worker of mine, though, an avowed bibliophile, loves her Nook to the point that we have something of a routine going in which the object, when she tells me yet again just how wonderful her Nook is, is to see how many double-entendres we can work into the conversation. A brief, not-so-risque example: When she told me that Barnes & Noble has a weekly gathering of Nook fans, I told her that they should call them Nookie sessions.

This woman, by the way, says she has a personal library of over 20,000 physical books. She loves them, too.

Having said that, though, I'm not blind to the pragmatism of these devices. Lots of colleges are making required textbooks available in this way, which only makes sense in view of the absurd cost of physical texts, combined with publishers' gradual shift from three years between edition changes to two years. Though I'd much prefer that my students have physical copies, if the choice is between, on the one hand, electronic copies and my students having them and, on the other, physical copies and my students not being able to afford them, I know which I'd prefer.

Earlier this year, I read that at Amazon, Kindle editions of books are outselling hardcovers, but not paperbacks. Not yet, at least. I suspect that's how things are going: many thousands of titles will become available in both media, while others, for whatever reason, will be available exclusively in one or the other medium. Example: Until we get Nooks and Kindles that can produce holographic images, Tree of Codes will exist only in physical form. I'll just repeat: the fact that a book like that is getting made is, I'd say, a good sign of the future health of physical books.

Doc said...

An avid reader, I'm firmly in the book camp. I've tried the Kindle and found it wanting on a number of levels, the least of which was it felt like carrying around the bibliophile’s equivalent of a man bag. That said it is hard to disagree with the tool’s use in academia as you described; in the future tens of thousands of households might also no longer waste shelving space on ancient university texts their owners can’t bring themselves to toss.

For a variety of reasons I can’t personally see the Kindle or its ilk replacing books. However that may be akin the the NYT famously predicting back in ’39 that the American public wouldn’t bother with TV.

Now…if the Kindle et al reversed the growing…what, not illiteracy rates, but the growing lack of interest in reading in general? I think last year less than 50% of Americans read a novel or a short story or a poem. If the electronic readers could improve those figures, more power to them.

Not that I would use one, mind.

John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by, Doc.

In that promised next post, I'm going to try to make the case that books won't entirely disappear, that--again, in accordance with a basic principle of design--experimentation at the extreme boundaries that eventually affects the more mundane mainstream; thus, not just Tree of Codes but other books published in the recent past bode well, I think for books-as-objects . . . and for folks like you and Randall and me.

Record companies are releasing vinyl editions of new releases, after all, even as music storage and distribution become ever more digitalized.