What Is a Book?

From Public Books:

nyone who remembers making the transition from typewriting to word processing has probably thrown away a fair number of floppy disks and jettisoned more than a few computers since then. Bad for the planet, yes. But it also poses particular challenges for the stewards and denizens of archives. We are still learning what it means to consult the “papers” of an important entity or individual when that becomes a metaphor for digital materials. A presidential library with its collection of tweets? A corporate archive with its residuum of labors in the so-called cloud?

Consider the “papers” of Toni Morrison at Princeton, which can be accessed on a dedicated terminal in the reading room. To do so is an occasion to ponder the traces that remain of the becoming of Morrison’s masterpiece Beloved, as well as the conditions of its creation. One finds an archive of documents scanned from paper, along with carefully curated versions of old word-processing files. Everything is there on the terminal, except the labels on the original floppy disks, which you’ll have to request from storage to examine. The becoming of Beloved survives in bits and bobs, not to say BLOBs (binary large objects). It reveals itself to inquiring minds only if they take exquisite care to parse the surviving of that becoming.

What, then, is a book? Examining the “papers” like those of Morrison at Princeton allows Matthew G. Kirschenbaum to offer bibliographical answers in Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage. The “bitstreams” of Kirschenbaum’s title refer to the data that preservation archivists extract from outdated storage media—your floppy disks and hard drives, for example—in the hopes of salvaging materials created with now-obsolete software and saved in now-obsolete file formats. Watery metaphors abound: Kirschenbaum sees bitstreams rippling through today’s publication workflow, the multiple steps and agencies by which an author’s digital files get turned into finished, saleable items. To the extent that these items now include so many one-click purchases and e-books for download, ours is indeed an age of “digital liquidity,” as Mark McGurl writes in Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon.

Like mirror-image twins separated at birth, Kirschenbaum and McGurl bring bibliographical and sociological methods to bear on contemporary American literature. In 2009, McGurl’s The Program Era completely re-envisioned postwar fiction in connection with the rise of university creative writing programs. Then Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes arrived in 2016 to like effect, re-envisioning literary history in connection with the advent not of curricular programming but of computer programming and the killer app that we have all learned to euphemize as “word processing.”

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Kirschenbaum’s book is an enhanced version of his 2016 A. S. W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography. The lectures are named after an American book collector and philanthropist, who might have defined a book as the surprisingly intricate outcome of more and less coordinated human labors. Following this definition, the first folios of Shakespeare that Rosenbach purchased would be among the most complicated. Rosenbach had to account for the work of authors and compositors, pressmen and booksellers. Today, thoughKirschenbaum’s remit includes computers—how they work, as well as the oversized roles they have come to play in the culture and business of books.

Morrison’s “bitstreams” seem bewildering enough. But those of William H. Dickey and Kamau Brathwaite each present additional wrinkles for literary history. Toni Morrison had an assistant who did the word processing, but these poets went further, using first-generation Macintosh computers themselves. Dickey created an oeuvre of hypertext poems that went unpublished during his lifetime. Brathwaite, meanwhile, used desktop publishing to create what he called his signature Sycorax Video Style, a font-and-page design that he had trouble getting his publishers to even attempt reproducing in print.

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Not all readers will have the patience to follow the specific steps between Dickey’s long-ago Macintosh and today’s JavaScript versions at archive.org, but they are hardly immaterial. Likewise the steps by which books and e-books arrive in our hands today.

A book nowadays is likely to have left its author’s computer to become a bunch of digital assets in Adobe InDesign. These digital assets are then published to e-book formats and onto paper, Kirschenbaum explains, in a globe-spanning process that might involve a specialized logistics firm, designer, and distributor in the United States, plus a paper mill and printer somewhere in Asia.

A book contains multitudes, Kirschenbaum has it. And, so it seems, to multitudes a book returns: as readers take it up within an effulgent media landscape where it shares “deep ontological commitments and compatibilities with other media” and participates in “the same technologies and infrastructures and economy.” Books in this sense are becoming “bookish media,” part of a transmedia complex native to our era of platform capitalism.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG is reminded of a statement from a semantics class that occurred centuries ago, “The word is not the thing.”

Books are whatever a group of people say they are. When little Suzie shows up with a bunch of free-form coloring that she has stapled together, she and her mother may both identify it as a book.

What constitutes a “book” has certainly changed over time. PG expects that all but the most muddle-headed individuals would recognize that an ebook is a book even though it can’t be perceived without the assistance of a smart phone, ereader, electronic tablet or some similar device that would be completely useless in perceiving a physical book.

PG can’t read either a printed book or an ebook without wearing his glasses these days. Is there something about requiring one or more intermediary devices to accurately perceive what has been written that determines what the author is attempting to communicate from being a real “book”?

The definition or meaning of a word is what a group of people agree it is at a given time and place.

Take “crimes” as an example. When PG was a sprout, there were no computer “crimes” and you couldn’t be arrested for surreptitiously hacking into someone’s computer. PG doesn’t even know if it was physically possible to access a computer from a meaningful anonymous distance or steal information except in the form of a voluminous printout.

The first computers were glorified calculators which could perform actions on numbers that were entered into them, but didn’t really contain any information worth stealing unless you were planning to load a room-full of giant metal cabinets on a fleet of trucks and leave nothing but an empty room behind. Stealing trade secrets would be the closest you could come to criminalizing then what a hacker does now.

Legislatures across a wide range of democratic nations around the world create new “crimes” all the time and the definition of a “crime” is of far more importance to most people than the definition of a “book”.

4 thoughts on “What Is a Book?”

  1. “PG doesn’t even know if it was physically possible to access a computer from a meaningful anonymous distance or steal information except in the form of a voluminous printout. ”

    Remote hacking was doable since the days of dialup timeshare computing. 1962 most likely, since that’s when ATT introduced the BELL 103 dialup modem. The first unauthorized access probably happened a week later. I expect it became the preferred path for industrial espionage a month later. 😀

    By tbe early 70’s it was the stuff of smart high school kids (Bill Gates, for one) and the entire phone system a playground for “phreakers”. APPLE’s Jobs and Wozniack make their first money selling illegal “BLUE BOXES”. It was obscure before PCs but by 1984 even Hollywood knew of hacking. (WAR GAMES).

    It’s a safe bet tbat any new tech takes about a week before somebody somewhere has foubd an unintended use or abuse of it. Heroine was supposed to be a safer alternative to morphine, for example.

    Last example: SPACEX is talking of their new reusable rocket system as a way to get humans to Mars–DOD talks of it openly as a fast reliable point to point cargo transport. Smart money says tbey quietly think of it as an orbital bomber.

    Words aren’t the only things that get repurposed.
    Humans are tbat way: shards of obsidian become knives, pipes and nails become shotguns, oil and fertilizer becomes a bomb, medicines become addictive epidemics. Only fools think humans are controllable.

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