The Book (and E-Lit) as Nostalgic Object


Not only does digital fluidity facilitate the creation of printed media that have no right to exist physically (that should stay digital and not “waste” paper—the using up of these resources clearly pushes our buttons because of both concern over conservation and over cultural capital—that gets to be a book?), expanding (or shrinking, depending upon your perspective) authorship, it also raises questions of access—how do we ensure these texts remain available as platforms change? As Michael Simeone notes, digital books are far more brittle than their physical counterparts and decay in a far different fashion. Sally Ball has addressed the way this ephemerality impacts conceptions of authorship—knowing that our works are likely to become dated within a short span of time prevents many writers from experimenting with new media and alternative or app-based publishing forms (many poets won’t even reference the contemporary moment in their work, lest a temporal reference prevent its resonance for subsequent generations). I myself collaborated on a book of augmented reality poems whose content can change at the drop of a hat—since the text does not appear on the pages, but only comes to life when those pages are presented to a webcam, emerging from barcode-like markers on the page’s surface (in fact, the reader herself can now change what appears on-screen, thanks to a web-based tool my collaborator Brad Bouse developed). That very terror, though, of dating oneself, can alternately be seen as liberatory—if we fail, we can erase the evidence, and we can even adapt or update our work to meet a new audience. If Michael Simeone’s doomsday predictions are accurate, then what me worry? about whether my book is accessible a year or two from now? Poets are always accused of fiddling while Rome burns, so to worry about who’s listening only expands our image of writerly narcissism.

To be serious, though, this state serves as a reminder that a book is an event, a performance between reader and page. Artists have known far longer than writers that the best way to save the ephemeral (happenings, performance, some land art) is through documentation.

Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a Philadelphia purveyor of fascinating goods and spirits.

Though I may be willing to give up on work that can no longer be supported, scholars like Lori EmersonDene Grigar, and Stuart Moulthrop are doing wonderful work to build archives of new media writing (from magic lantern slides—which once upon a time, of course, told highly immersive phantasmagoric stories—to hypercard works and Flash-based texts). In addition to this scholarly interest, what about the resurgence in pop culture of “antiquated,” outdated, even obsolete aesthetics? It’s no coincidence that I picked up letterpress printing in graduate school while studying electronic literature, or that my students are fascinated when I bring a typewriter into the classroom, or that we are so inundated by nostalgic-looking image filters that we need a #nofilter hashtag to assure us what we are seeing accurately reflects “reality.” Perhaps the electronic literature projects being made today, even those that seem glossy, interactive, and lovely in the best ways (like Aaron Koblin’s interactive music videos, and mass collaborative artworks created for Google) will indeed look wonky and wiley and willful to future readers (perhaps they may be utterly inaccessible), but it is also possible that, like the resurgence of interest in glitch and animated GIFs, their very stylistic issues will make us treasure them more.

Sustainability/Ephemerality: What Thy Mind Cannot Contain You Can Commit to These Waste Blanks


Once upon a time, it was a commonplace to think one lived on after death either by having children or by creating art. Art was permanent: Lascaux and Stonehenge achieved a kind of mega level of permanence (who made them? imagine lasting so long!) and Sonnet 17, the Canterbury Tales, the Pièta—these gave (are still giving) centuries of life to the names of their makers. Also, destroyers of civilizations have long known that to incinerate the art, or the library, is to eliminate culture, to wipe the slate clean for one’s own use: Alexandria, Sarajevo.

As we’ve spent today talking about the future of the book, I have this gnawing (Luddite?) question about what other than digitization plays a role in that future? Every answer circles back to at least the effects and implications of technology. One thing I have noticed among writers is that if they still believe their writing promises some type of immortality, they don’t let on. We are resigned to the ephemeral (even as we love and hate the Internet because whatever we put out there is there FOREVER). But ephemerality has won, or it’s the less terrifying name we’ve given to what is really a matter of flood and surge. No one is going to read us or notice us because the life cycle of a book is less than a year, the influx of new books drowns the already-old ones within shorter and shorter periods of time. Web publications too, zoom, on to the next thing. Who will ever find the previous tables of contents, except for someone who knows to look? Ephemerality has advantages: it encourages experiment; it makes us feel brave.

If my book is an object made of acid-free paper, or if it’s a letter-press throwback, lovingly made by hand in Tucson or Manhattan, it can take a lot of wear and tear. Maybe there are 1000 (or 100) of them in the world (75 percent in the publisher’s garage, okay). They have a scent; there may be pretty endpapers with a shiver of flaxen texture. If it’s a download, there could be infinitely many, but…one knows better. One knows that particular infinity is easily all promise and no count.

We might worry that the sprawl of the internet, or, say, the pffst of whatever server houses one’s work (the squirrel who fried New England…) we might worry that together these possibilities, as well as questions about data storage, built-in obsolescence, etc., make the future of the electronic book comparatively delicate. And as we now know, you can’t sneak things around on the Internet (not in America), and books have a long clandestine history. So there are good reasons to recognize that what seem to be advances have a downside.

I’m thinking of Robert Pinsky’s poem “Book,” in First Things to Hand (2006). It’s a poem that, at first, seems nostalgic, luxuriating in the language of bookmaking and stories of books worth dying for, almost, and even the mouthsounds bk, bch of the very word in English, in German. The poem is full of the voluptuary pleasure of holding books and the mental voyages books enable. And then:

…the passion to make a book—passion of the writer

Smelling glue and ink, sensuous. The writer’s dread of making
Another tombstone, my marker orderly in its place in the stacks.

Or to infiltrate and inhabit another soul, as a splinter of spirit
Pressed between pages like a wildflower, odorless, brittle.

The stacks themselves a cemetery.



The Future of Creativity and Books in the Face of Probable Doom, Part 2: The Resolution Race: None of This Is Sustainable. But That Is Why It Is Interesting



This kind of conversation is possible because we’re not currently thinking about how there are millions of people today who will use more than a gallon of fresh water to dispose of a mere cup of their own urine. Or how it will be impossible to feed the world without honeybees (who are all dying, but you know that already). We are, in so many ways, plummeting at maximum velocity toward impact. The idea of a digital platform for books should seem laughable if you’ve ever seen the burning e-waste trash pits of Lagos, or the island of plastic floating in the Pacific. Do we honestly expect that the age of digital books will last even a quarter of the time of the print book? Surely we will choke on our own garbage before we perfect the art.

But that is what makes this arresting. We are making things possible now at the expense of the future. We are nearly maxed out on credit.

The rapid advancement of display technology really is an incredible thing. You already know very much that “technology grows rapidly,” but it is easy to take for granted what our eyes expect. In 2004, the display on a mobile phone was about the size of a Fig Newton, and graphics looked as if they were constructed from Legos. That is, if they were even in color. In 2014, it is possible to procure a portable full color HD display that fits in pants pockets for less than the cost of a mediocre wool area rug. Screens are now the size of a reporter’s notebook and we can debate the merits of various pixel arrangements and color reproductions on pocket-sized displays rather than that they are in color at all. And displays are only getting bigger! Their resolutions are increasing as well. HD has gained widespread diffusion as a standard for graphics, only to see 4K emerge. Blu-ray barely had any time beating out HD DVD.

This is not to be facile and lament that things are changing too quickly, or that this growth is somehow manufacturing interest where there is no need. We are already doomed, so why not look for the good in things? Instead, let’s take a moment to appreciate the quality and detail of images that are becoming more and more accessible. A 75 dollar phone purchased at the grocery store can outperform a television from the 1990s. High resolution digital images are not everywhere, but they certainly are in more places than ever. This breakneck acceleration in display quality has a deep history that stretches back to the 1960s and 1970s. As shown by the career of pioneers like Sutherland and Fuchs, the history of computer graphics is intertwined with the search for optimal display solutions. What we see today is not different. To say that the world is visual is a cliché, but the impulse to increase resolution and quality of images holds such generative potential when we think about the future of books and knowledge systems.

For instance, very high-resolution images and videos allow for more visual detail in digital platforms. And detail is a transformative feature of image reproduction. For instance, the University of Illinois’ Medici allows users to zoom and inspect the image in a way that simulates the changing perspectives brought on by increasing the number of pixels used to represent an object. To understand this image as a collection of specimens is a standard definition perspective. To see that each specimen is visually distinct and interesting is a high-definition perspective. To appreciate every hair on the legs of each insect as part of an impossibly intricate collection, as a miraculous panoply of specialized components (such as we see when fully zoomed in), we require a format beyond HD.

And so there will be more visual information in knowledge systems. Not explicitly in the sense of increased numbers of charts, videos, and pictures, but in a very non-referential way, that of visual richness. As they increase in resolution, images could simulate more than represent. Or even represent more than they currently represent. In textbooks and fiction alike, there is a difference between demonstrating an example and calling that example into presence. Presented by better and better displays, future knowledge systems could be aggregations of simulations, narratives, and representations in a far more graceful and viable way than print or current mobile tech will allow.

This assumes that displays will always be pocketable or handheld. Perhaps they will not. Perhaps they will be part of our eyes one day. Perhaps we will run out of resources for batteries and there will be far less mobile technology in the next 20 years. Or both.