We seem to be living in a perpetual age of the death throes of The Book. 1 There are too many pieces to count that insist that the book is dead or (despite all odds) is thriving, that paper books are different/better/worse than electronic books, that game apps will save books, blah blah blah. We seem to rehash the same surface-level observations over and over again. As my friend Alan Jacobs wondered, “Why do people still write as though they’re the first ones to think about the difference between e-books and codices?” I’ll spare you my thoughts on the subject, since I’ll only gripe about how people misunderstand the complexities of books, whether on a print or a digital platform, and who wants to read more griping?
If you want to think about these questions through experiencing them, let’s look instead at some books that live on the boundary between print and electronic. The obvious starting place is Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen (Siglio Press, 2012): it exists in a codex form that can be held in your hand but to read it, you’ll need a computer. The pages of the book are black-and-white geometric shapes that are referred to as markers or hieroglyphs or sigils. The shapes aren’t legible as words to the human eye; hold them up to your webcam, however, and the book’s website will show back to you the poem floating above the page.
Is it still a book if you can only read it with a computer? That’s not a bad question, I suppose, and I find the concept of the work interesting. But the experience of using the book drives me crazy. When I first got it, my ancient laptop didn’t have a camera; the computers in the house that did either didn’t have Flash installed or had their cameras disabled. Now that I have a fancy laptop, I have the technological requirements, but it turns out I’m not so good at orienting the book to be read by my computer. First I held the book so that it was orientated to the computer’s perspective . . .
And then I realized (thanks to my 12-year-old) that I should hold the book so that it faced me correctly, not the lens. Perhaps I’m so wed to the notion of reading that I automatically assume that the computer “reads” books top-to-bottom, left-to-right as I do—that is, my problem might be a feature, not a bug. But if I’m really going to judge this book as something to be read, I have to say that the poetry in it dreadful. Apparently the book first existed in a limited-edition run of 12 letter-press books; perhaps the frisson between letter-press and Flash would have shifted some of the attention away from the words. I love the idea of visual poems that move through digital space, just as I have a fondness for codices that make themselves hard to read. 2 But I’d like to see the technologies harnessed to something with words to equal the beauty of the interface.
Perhaps the opposite of Between Page and Screen—and way more fun—is Richard Moore’s Paper Pong (2008). Paper Pong is, essentially, a Choose Your Own Adventure version of Pong, in which you start on page 1 and then need to choose whether you’re going to move your paddle up (go to page 114) or down (go to page 117).
I spent a lot of time as a kid playing Pong at home, so perhaps that’s why I enjoy this book so much. But I love it, too, for its ridiculousness. It’s a paper replication of a video game! Why would you do that? Why write lines of code to create a game of Pong that you then remediate in paper form? I don’t know that there’s a good reason to do that, other than you can. And, actually, that’s a decent reason, one that drives more than a few novels. Also, it turns out I’m still pretty bad at Pong and actually lost a couple of times before I got the hang of it. It’s a bit surprising the amount of tension generated by a paper version of a video game of a ball-and-paddle game. When you do lose, you end up with the wonderful message, “Game Over / To play again, go to page 1 / To quit, close this book.”
There are other books that take the graphic approach to the question of where the boundary is between print and electronic. Silvio Lorusso and Sebastian Schmieg’s 56 Broken Kindle Screens: Photographed E Ink, Collected Online, Printed On Demand (2012) consists of 56 images of broken Kindle screens found on Flickr and then reproduced in a print-on-demand paperback. The images can be gorgeous, and I love both the way it turns broken objects into art and the layers of mediation, moving from e-ink to pixel to paper, that goes into producing it. And my scholar’s heart loves that at the back of the book are credits for each image.
Fathom Information Design’s Frankenfont (2011) prints Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in fonts taken from a collection of pdfs gathered online; the book starts off with individual letters reproduced in the most common fonts (Arial, Helvetica, and Times New Roman, of course) and gradually shifts until the letters are in unusual ones (scripts, non-Roman fonts, pictograms). It, like 56 Broken Kindle Screens, is a good concept, but in practice I find it less engaging. Perhaps if the fonts were more interesting—rather than using unusualness as a marker of font, what about wholeness? Software degrades, fonts degrade. Perhaps if there was more willingness to play with ideas of beauty and completeness I would have liked it better.
There’s also the more straightforward projects of printing out the web. Rob Matthews, in 2012, printed out 0.01% of Wikipedia as a 5000-page, 1’7” tall book (XKCD, by the way, has worked out how many printers it would take to print out the entire English-language Wikipedia). There’s the ongoing Printing out the Internet (“A crowdsourced project to literally print out the entire internet.”), which doesn’t seem as clever to me as it does to its creators, although it’s apparently somehow intended to memorialize Aaron Swartz. If that’s not enough, the Library of the Printed Web displays the terrifying number of projects devoted to variations of this enterprise. It makes me weary just thinking about it. I do love The Art of Google Books, however, and if its creator, Krissy Wilson, does end up making a book from the Tumblr (as she suggests she’s interested in doing), I’d buy it in a heartbeat.
My favorite book for thinking about technologies and obsolescence is A Dodo at Oxford: The Unreliable Account of a Student and His Pet Dodo (Oxgarth Press, 2010). This book, edited by Philip Atkins and Michael Johnson, purports to be a facsimile edition of a 1695 printed diary of an student at Oxford who owned a dodo. Atkins and Johnson tell the story of finding the book in an Oxfam, searching for more information about it, and finally editing it for us today. The bulk of the volume is their facsimile replication of the diary with their annotations in the margin explaining various historical facts and oddities; there are also a series of appendices explaining early modern printing, including the use of the long-s, ligatures, and signature marks.
The story itself is charming—the narrator is bequeathed the Dodo by a dying Dutchman and then struggles to study and keep healthy the bird, all while enduring the usual poor-student travails—and the book is gorgeous. But what does this have to do with technology and obsolescence? I’m hesitant to give away too much of its wonder, but it’s no coincidence that Atkins and Johnson choose to tell the story of an extinct bird in a format that emphasizes its distance from our technologies today. It’s not only the replication of seventeenth-century print features, but instance after instance of subsequent histories, including some openings reproduced as blue-line corrections to the text, prophetic dreams about bicycles and other not-yet-inventions (you can read one of those dreams in the image above), a bookmark about the dangers of smoking, and inserts of photos of electricity pylons being built. The entire codex interweaves questions of technology, extinction, and discovery. Is the book a museum like the Ashmolean, an object to be studied like the Dodo, something that dreams the future? A Dodo at Oxford is smart and funny. Go read it the next time someone tells you that books are (omigod are not!) dying.
Perhaps the main thing to remember as the fruitless debate circles and circles is that any opposition between print and digital is, today, ridiculous. You might think you’re reading a paper book, but it was, I promise you, produced through digital means. The person who wrote it is overwhelmingly likely to have used a computer to do so, it was edited and typeset using software, its distribution is enabled and tracked with databases, and it is reviewed and discussed in both electronic and physical spaces that are enabled by technology. 3
It’s not a black-and-white world out there. Our methods of producing and consuming books will continue to be as multiply shaded as our reactions to them has always been. So here’s to reading instead of fretting!
- I recommend reading Robert Bolick’s excellent account of the long history of the so-called death of books. ↩
- In the category of books that thwart you, see Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which is gorgeous and impossible. ↩
- Matt Kirschenbaum’s forthcoming book Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing will drive home the point that all books today are digital products.) ↩