Beyond the Book?

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The premise of this gathering is that the book is not simply a changing technology, but one that is disappearing, evaporating, disintegrating before our eyes. Yet even as new technologies have facilitated the digitization of books, and the creation of apps, immersive audio experiences, game-like interactive narratives, and other ephemeral books and book-like artifacts, they have also facilitated the rise of small press publishing and provided increased opportunity for the generation and distribution of texts. Writers, after all, do not, as Ulises Carrión (1985) reminds us, write books, but texts.

In fact, it seems we are not moving beyond the book, but in fact entering a moment in which everything is a book. A natural evolution, perhaps, from poststructuralism’s assertion that everything is a text? If everything is legible, then anything is fodder for publication and distribution, we might say, whether by a robot that crawls the web for content to be packaged into Kindle books, or by the blogger who wants to see a year’s worth of witticisms packaged between covers.

As my co-conspirators Michael Simeone and Sally Ball have pointed out, the “creative systems” through which contemporary writing circulates reconfigure authorship, placing increased emphasis on the reader as co-constitutor of the text, and on the book as a performance that alters each time it is accessed.

Text’s ubiquity and seeming immateriality has given rise to a situation like the one Walter Benjamin imagined in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in which every reader can at any moment transform into an author. Think of all the blogs-turned books (including this project), the rise of Blurb and other platforms for creating art books from digital images, the increased presence of print-on-demand opportunities not only online, but in physical bookstores like Harvard Book Shop in Cambridge and McNally Jackson in New York. It continues to be ever easier to make something into an object recognizable to others as a “book.”

The ease with which text can be poured from one container into another (extending Beatrice Warde’s (1956) notion of typography as a “crystal goblet” in a slightly disingenuous way here—I side with Kate Hayles (2002) and other theorists of media-specificity that the book is in fact not transparent, but in fact structures our interactions with it at every turn) has given rise to some fascinating publications that should, it seems, not be books. An immaterial situation that embraces our ability to print books affordably and to make all that was once air solid again. Whether we are thinking of spambots that troll the web for free content to be sold as e-books or authors like Kenneth Goldsmith and other members of the conceptual avant-garde whose writing practice resembles remix, remediation, appropriation, or, in Goldsmith’s formulation, “uncreativity” (2011).

These books are fascinating artistic artifacts, like Nick Thurston’s Of the Subcontract (2013), a collection of poems crowdsourced through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, with its shiny metallic cover and minimalist design.

Like Thurston’s mirror-faced paperback, many of these appropriations draw our attention to  reader as much as author, repositioning the writer him or herself as a reader/curator. For those interested in the aesthetics of such projects, Paul Soulellis maintains an online repository, Library of the Printed Web, and related projects can be found at Gauss PDF (whose recent works include a series of lovely close-up photographs of Emmalea Russo’s re-typing of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, with stitching obscuring nearly all of the text save the recurrent word “they”—a project that clearly plays with re-enactment and remediation, particularly since it includes recto and verso of every page) and Trollthread (among whose many “unprintable” books you’ll find the antithesis of Thurston’s shiny surface:  Holly Melgard’s Black Friday, whose 734 pages are entirely black onscreen, but devolve gradually during the printing process as your printer’s toner depletes) two PDF publishers specializing in books that push on the boundaries of book-ness and authorship.

One thought on “Beyond the Book?

  1. Richard Nash

    I find it particularly exciting to consider how so much critical literary theory prefigures current insights around how reading/writing is evolving. In a sense, it seems like we’re going through is less a transformation in reading and writing but rather a process of re-understanding what it has always already meant.

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