Forthcoming, MIT Press, 2018
The dual subjects of the death of the book and the future of books (two halves of the same debate) have taken hold of popular interest in Europe and the United States thanks to widespread awareness of new digital publishing platforms, from print-on-demand services that enable anyone to produce a book, to ebook platforms that enable readers to carry entire libraries with them on the go. Articles decrying the impact of digital devices on not just our reading comprehension, but our attention spans, ability to fall asleep, and even fertility make the rounds of social media on a seemingly-weekly basis. Legal cases around Google Books’ efforts to scan the world’s libraries and Amazon’s monopoly over ebooks have kept debate about the impact of the digital shift on reading and research in the news. Scholars, librarians, publishers, and publicists have responded to this moment with articles and books about the fate of the object we have come to think of as the “book” in a digital age. These range from celebrations of the potential for digital media to expand our scholarship, to nostalgic paeans to print. It seems the further we move into the digital age, the more acutely we become aware of, and interested in, books’ materiality. But readers interested in the book must wade through this sea of reference material and often lack a stable sense of where books have come from to anchor their understanding of the present moment in book culture.
The Book takes a brief history of the book as a starting point for understanding an object that is by its nature slippery (the term “book” itself commonly refers interchangeably to both medium and content). It looks to the fields of artists’ books and electronic literature for reminders of the way the book’s different interfaces influence and are in turn influenced by, materials, readers, and writers. In four thematic chapters that consider the book as object, content, idea, and interface, it reminds us the book is a fluid artifact whose form and usage have shifted over time under numerous influences: social, financial, and technological. Grounded in a media archaeological and medium-specific approach, it addresses this historical moment in which people are fascinated by books and concerned about their future. It isn’t only publishers, authors, booksellers, and librarians who are paying attention to this transition, but a generation of readers and book-lovers who have built bookshelves, friendships, and leisure time around an object they are being told will not last.
Because the form of the book has been, and continues to be, porous and malleable, to gain essential knowledge about it we must consider the book as a concept and understand the systems—intellectual, artistic, and economic—within which it circulates. How the book is defined is as much a feature of those structures as of the technology through which it is produced and encountered. Rather than pinning our notion of the artifact to a single form, then, this volume tracks the book as “material text,” considering the various historical and contemporary forms it has taken, from tablet to screen, in order to speculate on its future. The Book intervenes into current debates about the future of the book by suggesting that what feels like a monumental shift is in fact a small mutation. To see where books might be going, we must think of them as objects whose physical form has experienced a long history of experimentation and play. Rather than bemoaning the death of books or creating a dichotomy between print and digital media, The Book seeks continuities between them and highlights the way artists in the 20th and 21st centuries have pushed us to rethink our definitions of the term. Considering the book as a changing technology, it addresses this historic moment and looks ahead to the book to come.