Materiality: Rectangles, Accordions


In the science fiction part of our conversations here, we’ve inched toward imagining books once they stop looking like books, or like rectangles. What will it be like when we “read” via a chip in our parietal lobes? I just reread (the old-fashioned way) Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012) and that novel’s deliberate banalities and its querying of how fiction interacts with reality, or with autobiography—and with beauty, how it stakes a claim for genius in part by being ugly!—remind me of Conceptual Poetry. Heti’s book is both a story we may or may not fall into and an argument with storytelling, with novels; in that way it’s quite similar to Kenneth Goldsmith’s poetry, his printing out the Internet, or Joseph K(aplan)’s making his own name by listing the names of, and arbitrarily (or not?) identifying the socio-economic status of, other poets in a long “poem” (Note: Kaplan’s Kill List was published online in 2013 by an independent press, Cars Are Real. The Poetry Foundation’s blog about the book helped facilitate explosions of condemnation and defense).

Goldsmith says in an interview with the Academy of American Poets, “The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them. Here’s every word I spoke for a week. Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports…and without ever having to read these things, you understand them” (2011). I imagine the paperless book will often have additional ambitions, but I think our embrace of conceptual lit, our genial welcome of high jinks and provocation and contentlessness (or content overload, or content disingenuousness) to the conversation (Goldsmith is featured on the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation websites, the grand dames of contemporary American poetics, both of which over the last fifteen years have become increasingly open to experiment and avants of various kinds) signals something about how ready we are to consider books in new ways.

Two areas of book-change stand out to me: first, the relationship of the book to whatever paratextual material accrues around it. As writers reconstrue (for better or worse) the way they allocate time and energy between making novels or poems and making a context for those novels and poems to find readers via, usually, social media, they either generate such paratextual material, or permit it to be generated via interviews, audio recordings, etc., and as they also help disseminate it, the book is increasingly likely to be encountered inside the nest of all this other stuff. As, for example, book trailers grow more beautiful, or more funny, or more engaging in any of a range of ways, or as other kinds of video are linked to books, as the ruminations of writers about their work or the work of others are easier to find and read before, during, after reading the referenced literary work…has that started to create a new conglomerate book, the sum of these many parts? Already some books seem to want to house more and more within their covers or their e-carnations of whatever kind.

And here is one example, Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ visual poem based on Victoria Redel’s Woman Without Umbrella (2012), of why that’s potentially so appealing:

Second, there are a plethora of wonders now being produced for large audiences: Anne Carson’s Nox (2010), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (2010), the new collection of Dickinson’s envelope poems, Matthea Harvey’s Of Lamb (2011), Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006) (thanks to the poet Erika Meitner, (Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (2011), Ideal Cities (2010)), for helping me think of some of these; she also mentioned Daphne Gottlieb (a performance poet) who used to give out little eight-page chapbooks of new poems to people she met and liked, chapbooks hand-bound with ribbon—a smaller instance of tenderness toward the book’s richness as an art object…). Some of this may derive from the nostalgia Amaranth Borsuk is writing about. In any case, as we perceive the traditional book to be threatened, we seem to become wistful about its physicality, its capacity to be both a container of consciousness and a joy forever…. When Richard Nash started Cursor and Red Lemonade, part of the idea was to make books widely available as e-books and also beautifully available in limited editions, the best of both worlds. So as books grow increasingly ephemeral, we’ve embraced their materiality anew.

Conceptualism may facilitate the deletion of materiality from our list of expectations of “literature,” from even the book itself. If you don’t have to read it, you don’t need to hold it in your hands! Your experience may be enhanced—or muted, mitigated, alloyed—by reading while also (or instead?!) consuming the paratextual stuff. And then, too, the opportunity to unfold the accordion of Carson’s paintings and notes and collagings and to read her poems and translations surrounded by that colorful, unwieldy, gorgeous origami text—even if that’s driven by future-of-the-book anxiety of some kind, it’s pretty glorious to do.