Traveling the Landscape of the Book


Here is what I want to ask: Books provide us paths through the world. Can the world provide us paths through books? Or, more appropriately, what can the world itself tell us about how we should sprint beyond the book?

So let me digress with a comment on reading and books as sensory experiences. Books are read; text is visual. Nearly every assumption built into the imaginary of books depends on reading and sight. Too often we often fail to appreciate the breadth and depth of books in terms of their sensory evocation, much less how we might experience what is within. Of course, books themselves are tactile. Old books, in particular, have a certain smell—for the historian, opening an old book is akin to the experience of that new car smell. Ahhh, yes, the mustiness of an old library. I fondly recall the reddish hue of the archives that adhered to my white gloves. More typically, we think of the senses in terms of the sensory experiences evoked by a book, a petit madeleine, chocolate, or the smell of baked bread in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Do these evocations go only one way, from the book to the imagination to the senses? Can we reverse that path, bring the physical experience—of the senses, of the material, to the book? Wouldn’t that enhance our experience? I am thinking presently of how a sound historian has used the digital humanities to evoke the auditory sensibilities of early 20th century New York City. Our senses might offer entirely new paths into and through literature, allowing us to move beyond the book, envisioning a multisensory experience.

Likewise, reading itself is not just a literal act of moving eyes over text and processing that text, but it has become a metaphor for the production of knowledge itself. We do more than read text. We also “read” landscape, images, and environment. And yet, this imagining still elevates reading above not only the senses but also above the material world with all its depth and expressions. Of course, books have never been isolated from the world, but discussions of the book usually imagine them as knowledge systems all but closed from anything outside the human imagination. I would argue that imagination is shaped by social and historical experience. Rather than imagine books as blazing paths through our minds, perhaps we should look to social and historical experiences—to the materiality of everyday experience—to find ways of imagining paths through books themselves.

Consider how the landscape can be exposed, confronted, and expressed to create a path through a book, one where the materiality of space helps us find the logic of a book, or perhaps the materiality of experience—perhaps the work of an aged craft iron worker, whose voice and talents reveal narrative. What about hyper-textual approaches to the book, where links structure our reading—connections to the material, the ephemeral, the momentary?

I want a world of non-textual paths, generated by the materiality of the world, that structures our paths through individual books, libraries of books, or literatures. I don’t want to abandon the narrative, the story, the text, the argument in favor of the archival. Rather, I want a connectedness between book and materiality of experience that transforms not only our reading of the world but also our reading of the book.

As we sprint beyond the book, let’s not race toward the book as an individuated form (and I’m not advocating abandoning authorship) without connection to other books or to the materiality of experience. Rather, lets build something that is interlaced with the world, with the materiality of experience, including especially a richer sensory experience. Let’s create books that are meta-analytical and meta-experiential.

One thought on “Traveling the Landscape of the Book

  1. I’m struck reading this about the notion of the book as tapestry. A scroll is already a palimpsest of woven plant fibers (usually) as well as layers of text and meaning. But somewhere between Babbage’s calculating engine and the Jacquard Loom, we also constructed our digital texts and tools as weaving machines.

    So the material permeability, changeability of a digital text is really important. Imagine a digital book whose pages get sticky when it’s too humid, like real books do. Or that changes shape or tenor based on the number of people reading it, like a subway car. I’m not sure these are quite the right examples, so my question is: what are good models for this? Where do we see texts working this way now?

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