The Journey, The Makers, The Book, by James C. Cameron Silva
‘I remember television in the early 50s were a lot of radio shows on TV … they were old radio shows reformatted for TV.… It makes me crazy that people don’t recognize the unique qualities of a new medium.’ [i]
John A. Walsh, executive vice president and executive editor of ESPN, former managing editor of US News and World Report and Rolling Stone.
The above statement was spoken in frustration during a podcast regarding newspapers, their demise, and the mistakes made in the advent of the internet. It is a bit of an understatement that our relationship to our physical icons of information and narrative is undergoing a profound sea change:
‘…it no longer requires a dystopic imagination to wonder who will have the dubious distinction of publishing America’s last genuine newspaper. Few believe that newspapers in their current printed form will survive.’ [ii]
Decreased classified ad sales in the wake of sites such as craigslist.org and the bizarre decision to give away online content while still trying to sell the same content on the newsstand are issues particular to the newspaper industry. The demise of the newspaper does, however, provide a historical backdrop that can not be ignored when we discuss our other major embodiment of the written word: the book.
Looking at newspapers, it is easy to see why there is so much concern and discourse over the fate of the codex with the arrival of the e-book. The main issue in these discussions may not lay so much in the surface similarities of newspapers-versus-internet or book-versus-e-book relationships, but in the mentality that Walsh outlines in his quote.
‘My attachment isn’t so much [to] holding the physical object in my hand. If the reliability of the best newspapers could be transferred to the internet, I’d be fine. So it’s not about nostalgia …’ [iii]
Le Anne Schreiber, former head of the New York Times sports section as well as former editor of the ‘New York Times Book Review’.
Interestingly though often when writers do write about books versus digital media it is dominated by nostalgia. It is problematic when the main constituency (writers) for a media (the physical book) uses nostalgia as the basis of their stance. This is coupled with another issue: whether it is book or e-book, writers primarily see books as vessels for text and therefore not as truly distinct entities. Yes, they may see the book as a direct competitor to the pulp book, but they ‘don’t recognize the unique qualities of a new medium.’ [i] So while they argue differences in the mediums, their arguments are rooted in purely surface differences.
The reason they prefer one surface over another? Nostalgia. If one is looking for lessons to be learned from what has happened to newspapers this may be it: nostalgia is not enough to save an old media in the face of a changing landscape. It was not enough to save pulp newspapers and I doubt it will be enough to save pulp books.
Perhaps there is another group that should be included in the conversation. A group possibly better equipped to argue the merits and to accentuate the differences between the book of paper and the book of pixel. Are writers the best guides to lead us into this new landscape? And what do writers write about when they write about the book?
Writers’ have a common approach to the book because of the written word itself has an entrenched relationship to the book. It is unfair, however, to lump all writers together because within their own sphere of discourse there a wide range of opinions about the book and e-book.
For example, Sven Birkerts, the author of the Gutenberg Elegies, represents the extremely conservative viewpoint in the book/e-book discussion. His ideals and values are seemingly rooted in a Utopian view of the past and a general fear of the future.
‘We have been stripped not only of familiar habits and ways, but of familiar points of moral and psychological reference. … Not a brave new world at all, but a fearful one.’ [iv]
There is nothing inherently wrong with nostalgia. It is, however, not particularly visionary or helpful in the face of a changing world. Ironically, as Birkerts writes in earnest to save the codex, he offers nothing in the way of solutions. His rhetoric is distilled into a simple diatribe of paper is good and digital media is bad and we would be best served by putting the digital genie back in bottle. Not highly realistic.
If Birkerts writes from an alarmist position, then Robert Darnton comes from the point of view of the pragmatic academic.
Darnton, a Harvard history professor with a focus on books, has been involved with several e-book projects, notably Guttenberg-e (a series of electronic monographs of history dissertations) and the Google Book Search project. This background gives Darnton an unique perspective on the subject of the book – both as someone engaged with its historical role, as well as someone with first hand experience on its digital developments.
He does have his reservations and concerns but he definitely shows as much interest in the future, as he does with the history of the book and how they might work together.
‘Far from deploring electronic modes of communication, I want to explore the possibilities of aligning them with the power the Johannes Gutenberg unleashed more than five centuries ago. What common ground exists between old books and e-books?’ [v]
As a book historian and one concerned with preservation he recognizes the inherent differences between the book and e-book. However, as he builds a case for the book as a historical artifact, and as he presents various possibilities and uses for the e-book, he does not give many reasons for why we should continue to create new physical books.
The few reasons throughout his writings he does give are based around a vague nostalgia for the feel of paper, binding, etc. or the concept of preservation, i.e. having a physical back-up to e-books.
Darnton takes significant steps past Birkwerts in accepting the e-book as a relevant vessel of communication, but he still has not quite taken the step to view the e-book as a unique mode of communication and expression.
Alberto Manguel writes from a bit of a different vantage point than the other two; despite (obviously) being a writer himself he writes primarily from the view of the reader.
‘My starting point seems always to be reading … as a child I realized I was a reader and I had very little interest in being a writer and stepping onto the other side of the page. … I am a reader and what does that mean?’ [vi]
Overall he seems to recognize that reading, narrative, and storytelling are subjects that transcend any single mode of delivery, be it codex, scroll, clay tablets, or the digital devices of today.
‘The misplaced fear of technology, which once opposed the codex to the scroll, now opposes the scroll to the codex. It opposes the unfurling text on the screen to the multiple pages of the humanist reader’s hand held book. But all technology … has a human measure; it is impossible to remove the human strand even from the most inhuman of technological devices.’ [vii]
Manguel instead wonders how and what role these two medias will take. For he believes that the codex will survive in the age of digital media. If Darnton sees the codex as an artifact for historic preservation and study, and Birkerts sees it as a religious relic not to be subverted, then Manguel see it as a living organism capable of adaptation.
‘Each technology has its own merits, and therefore it may be more useful to leave aside this crusading view of the electronic vanquishing the printed one and explore instead each technology according to its particular merits.’ [viii]
Exactly, but writers do not truly engage in the form and the form is what separates the codex from the e-book. Writers have nostalgic feelings for the form, they may even value the form as historical record, but rare is the writer that truly engages and accentuates the form.
The Other Maker
‘In ancient Anglo-Saxon, the word for poet was maker, a term that blends the meaning of weaving words with that of the material world.’ [ix]
‘Makers shape things into being, granting them their intrinsic identity. … makers reflect back the world in its constant ruptures and changes, and mirror in themselves the unstable shapes of our societies, … and by asking over and over again “Who are we?” and by offering the ghost of an answer in the words of the question itself.’ [x]
There are two roles of the maker(s) for any book: the maker of the content and the maker of the form. Typically the writer is associated with the first role. The second role is filled by visual practioners or craftsmen. More times than not, beyond the cover design (or dust jacket) the connection between the content and the form is to be so subtle as to be invisible.
If the codex and the e-book are to carve out unique niches for themselves, they will need to develop a more robust connection between content and form. In the case of the codex, and its continued existence, it is probably imperative.
The creators of the content, the writers, have relied heavily on nostalgia. Part of the problem with nostalgia is that the user can only feel truly nostalgic for things they have experienced first hand. As a new generation of screen readers emerge they will have less and less of a connection to the book as a form, nostalgia will be non-existent. Instead the physical book needs to be reinvented to keep itself fresh and relevant.
If the writer is not providing the requisite impetus for the continued relevancy of the physical book, then we should turn to the second role – the visual practitioner.
The maker that has embraced the full potential of the second role is the book artist. Primarily operating outside the mainstream publishing industry, the book artist has fused content with form to a greater extent than any other book professional. Thereby, the book artist becomes a unique hybrid of the first role of content maker and second role of form maker. These book artists and their books may show us a path forward for both the physical and even the digital book.
What are artists’ books and how does their engagement of the form of the book differentiate them from typical books?
‘An artist’s book is an artwork for the printed page … it’s not a catalogue, it’s not about art, it’s not about the artist – it’s the artwork itself, whatever form that may take. … it is conceived as an artwork rather than some sort of document.’ [xi]
This is one of the more concise definitions – as defined by AA Bronson, founding member of the Canadian artist collective General Idea and executive director of artists’ book publisher Printed Matter.
Johanna Drucker, who has written as extensively as anyone on the subject states ‘… an artist’s book is a book created as an original work of art, rather than a reproduction of a preexisting work. And also, that it is a book which integrates the formal means of its realization and production with its thematic or aesthetic issues.’ [xii]
But admits that it is difficult ‘to make a single, simple statement about what constitutes an artist’s book.’ [xii]
Regardless of whether the works termed artists’ books fit within a tight definition, it becomes clear the approach to the form is intriguingly different from that of the writer. The fusion of form and content attempts to draw out the uniqueness of the codex as a physical embodiment of that very content. A form that is, thereby, not easily replaced by other media formats.
The more we exploit the inherent attributes and possibilities of not only the physical book, but the e-book as well, the more these two medias will have unique and valuable roles in the future of our literary and artistic worlds.
Dr. Stephen Bury, librarian and art historian, provides a fine summation to the question of defining artists’ books:
‘Artists’ books are book-like objects over the final appearance of which an artist has had a high degree of control … this definition breaks down as artists challenge it – pushing the book format in unexpected directions.’ [xviii]
The Conceptual Directions
Stéphane Mallarmé, the symbolist poet, is a noteworthy precursor to our concept of the artist’s book. He wrote about a conceptual framework: The Book [his capitalization]. This hypothetical Book merged the book and the poem into a singular united oneness. [xiii]
Even before Mallarmé, William Blake had already married word, image, page, and book using a method he called ‘illuminated printing’. Likewise, William Morris established the Kelmscott Press to execute his incredibly complex and detailed visions of ‘The Ideal Book’. Through Blake and Morris we see the book taking on a level of importance in form that envelops the content. Their works accentuate and elevate what a book is and can be.
In the early twentieth century, The Russian Futurists, in particular, added another concept to the artist’s book equation: ‘the desire to produce inexpensive works with available means in a format over which the artist or writer had total control.’ [xiv]
This spirit of the democratized art work proved to be a continuing trend all the way up to contemporary times. And it is worth noting that books that engage the form need not be cost prohibitive endeavors.
There are two artists that stand as exemplary of the contemporary artist book era: Ed Ruscha and Dieter Roth. They embraced mass production through modern mechanical means (a break from fine arts printing), while still investigating the book as singular art form.
As they were still experimenting with form and content, they were also now experimenting with audience. With mechanized printing books could be produced at an affordable per unit cost. Edward Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations was initially printed in 1962 in a run of 400 and sold for around $3 … and then in ’67 he reprinted in an edition of 500 … and in ’69 an edition of 3,000 … [xix]
‘The book as a vehicle for art ideas and as an art form has many advantages, most of which can be summed up by the word accessibility.’ [xx]
Dieter Roth’s early works embraced the book arts and the concepts of craft and assemblage, but then in the 1950s he also began to embrace mass production. Roth is an interesting figure, because he also used the book as a primary dedicated mode for his artistic practice.
‘There would be no way to translate a Dieter Roth book into another medium – the idea of the works is inseparable from their form as books and they realize themselves as works through their exploration of the conceptual and structural features of a book.’ [xv]
This idea is the foundation upon which future books should be based to secure their relevancy and, likewise, to develop robust e-books. We should continually be asking ourselves, are the works inseparable from their form?
From the 1960s onward artists’ books have grown and expanded into a myriad of complex directions – varying from inexpensively produced volumes of staple-bound Xeroxed pages to exquisite hand-bound volumes using premium materials; some have maintained the traditional codex and others have been cut, folded, and transformed into sometimes literal architectural structures. Content has likewise included a near infinite array of text and/or image relationships reflecting all manner of artistic and social movements.
Book artists continued to exploit a variety of elements within the book format.
‘The way in which books contain and present information makes them unique. … It is a journey, and the physicality of the object that contains it plays an essential role.’ [xxi]
While other media do rely on sequentiality, such as sound and video, the book is unique in that its spatial structure has sequentiality built within it. This makes it ideal for as a carrier for written narrative, but book artists accentuate this element in even more overt ways.
‘All books are visual. Even books which rely exclusively on type, or on unusual materials, or those which contain only blank sheets have a visual presence and character. All books are tactile and spatial as well – their physicality is fundamental to their meaning. Similarly, the elements of visual and physical materiality participate in a book’s temporal effect …’ [xvi]
Another method of drawing out a book’s essence is through its very materiality. Both physical books and e-books can play with sequentiality in their own unique ways, but when it comes to materiality it is the most obvious and primary attribute that separates the two media. By exploiting this aspect of the codex – and likewise by exploiting the e-book’s digital and immaterial nature – we can further draw separation between these two formats. This separation will help develop the view that the book and e-book experiences are distinct and not competing.
‘… since artists are used to making objects, they usually don’t forget to consider that a book is an object.’ [xxii]
Within the work produced by book artists there is a deeper and different understanding into the nature of what makes a book a book, in comparison to the writer. An artist’s book can do this through a multitude of ways: provide an accessible/democratized form of art; provide a platform where the roles of artist and writer work in tandem (or completely merge) to produce both content and form; accentuate the book’s inherently sequential nature or, likewise, purposely push against it; or exploit the form through materials. The most successful work of book artists creates a symbiotic relationship between form and content – so symbiotic that they become inseparable.
‘The compelling quality of artists’ books is the way in which they call attention to the specific character of a book identity while they embody the expressive complexity of the book as a communicative form … the best artists’ books are those which integrate production and content so dynamically that such distinctions are moot.’ [xvii]
The Models for Media
‘… the primary cause of my keen and abiding love for artists’ books may have something to do with a fantasy I have. In this fantasy, artists’ books save the publishing industry from ignominious extinction, prevent illiteracy from sweeping the world, and enable genuine authors of actual writing to recapture the book market …’ [xxiii]
Why is it important or of any real concern to truly differentiate between the book and the e-book as media platforms? Why does this matter? Can we not continue producing books and e-books whose primary function is to act as mere carriers for the written word? Well, yes, we can and we will. If that is all we choose to use these platforms for, in the long run, this will spell the demise, for the most part, of the physical book and will also create a wasted opportunity and limited creative potential for the e-book.
Through examining the role of book artists and artists’ books, it is obvious that the book as a creative endeavor is still full of possibilities and potential. Artists’ books also show that the form can be more than merely a passive carrier of content; the form and content can, in fact, be so intertwined as to be inseparable. Book artists engage with books not because they feel a sense of nostalgia or feel that they are valuable historical artifacts, as writers do (though they may also have these feelings), but because it is an engaging and living art form full of infinite possibilities. Publishers and producers would be better served by following a book artist vision of the book rather than an author vision of the book.
Here is why this is so important. It all comes down to how we view different forms of media and their relationship to each other.
To my thinking, there are two models in play for the relationship between old and new media formats. The first we will call the Replacement Model. This is where a newer form of media replaces the one that came before it, for example, the DVD replacing the VHS cassette. For one reason or another the new form of media fulfills the same purpose as the older form of media, but is deemed superior by the majority of users.
Let us look at another example:
vinyl record --> compact disc --> mp3
These are all delivery devices that carry the same content. While the experiences are different, either they're not different enough, or the new technology offers advantages over the previous technology that outweighs whatever the user may be giving up (once again in the perception of the vast majority of consumers).
I owned Yo La Tengo's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One in all three of the above listed formats. While I enjoyed the vinyl LP's art work, packaging, and listening experience, I could not play it in my car like the CD, and when it came time to move to the UK the mp3 beat out both of the previous technologies for it's portability. In essence, it's the same content and while how I experience the content is a bit different, it's not that different.
The second model I will call the Alternative Experiences Model. In this model when the newer media format comes about it does not replace the older one. This is because the experiences are different enough that the older format retains its relevancy and the two formats continue to coexist. One example may be painting and photography. Ironically, during the advent of photography, there were some that thought this relationship would follow the Replacement Model. The assessment was that photography could do what painting did but more accurately and was more replicable. In some ways this was true – we no longer see a great many paintings of battle scenes and historic events as we did before photographic technology. So some of the more ‘journalistic’ roles that painting held were usurped by the camera but painting within the fine arts continued to develop and explore its medium in new ways that the camera could not. [xxiv]
Here is another example of an Alternative Experiences Model:
theatre | book | film
All three of the above medias can carry, or more accurately interpret, the same content but they offer completely different experiences. One could go and see Shakespeare’s The Tempest performed live or read the text within a book or see a cinematic interpretation, such as Peter Greenaway’s Prospero's Books. All three provide vastly different ways of experiencing Shakespeare’s words. Because of this, none of these media types can or will replace the other.
The e-book versus the paper book discussion has been framed as a Replacement Model discussion, even by the people that are firmly pro-paper book. They focus on details of the experience that quite honestly are nice, poetic, and, indeed, nostalgic. These details however do not outweigh the advantages and conveniences afforded to the newer media (once again to the vast majority of consumers).
By contrast, theatre and film are viewed as separate distinct art forms – not strictly as carriers of another art form. Vinyl and mp3s are viewed not as art forms but almost exclusively as vehicles for a separate art form – no matter how amazing the packaging or the album cover design. Right now the book/e-book discussion is framed, using the Replacement Model, as vehicles for a separate art form: writing. They are considered carriers of the same content, not as experiences that reinterpret the content in significantly different ways. Partly this is because a device, such as, The Kindle does not reinterpret the content in any significant way, the same can be said of most mass-produced books. However, I believe it is still possible and advisable to reframe this discussion as an Alternative Experience Model discussion.
As we have seen, book artists approach the form of a book on a much more structural and visual level than the writer; artists’ books and the book artists that create them have the ability to reframe this book/e-book relationship by providing inspiration to designers, publishers, and even writers to create new books and e-books where the form is exploited more robustly and tied to the content in interesting and unique ways. They can do this by producing projects that accentuates a book’s 'bookishness' and by producing e-books that accentuate their multimedia possibilities.
There will be a transition. Painters began to produce paintings that were more about painting in the post-photography world. Photographers, likewise, eventually began producing photographs that exploited the uniqueness of photography instead of mimicking traditional painting motifs. We now need to revisit what makes a book unique as a form, as an object, as a mode of expression – both in the physical form and in the digital form. Conveniently, as we have seen, there is a whole lineage of book works to draw upon; in some ways the future of the book is already way ahead of where painting was in the face of the photograph, thanks to book artists. However, these ideas and concepts must begin to migrate from the art world to the larger world of publishing if they are to truly be effective.
As stated earlier, there were certain roles of painting that were usurped by photography. Theatre also held a more dominant role in our society before the advent of film. Painting was never replaced by photography and theatre still exists as an alternative art and entertainment form in the post-film world. Physical books are, most likely, destined to decrease in the shadow of the e-book, but they do not need, and should not, come to be viewed in the same way we view vinyl records.
In my mind’s eye, I would like to imagine a world where we compare books and e-books in the way we do with books and films – ‘Yes, Blade Runner is really a fantastic film, but you should also read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”.’ And, likewise, a world where writers and artists create works so singular to their art form that a book/e-book transference would be out of the question – ‘I can not fathom how one would even go about making a cinematic interpretation of Ulysses.’
It is truly an exciting time for the book. An exciting time for those that work with the book as a medium and for publishers and writers that are willing to open themselves to new viewpoints and possibilities. Whether one chooses to work within the world of the physical object, with board and pulp and binding and ink, or in the digital world of sound and motion and interactivity, or even possibly to bridge those two worlds in some new and intriguing way, there is no shortage of possibilities. We only limit ourselves through the narrow lens of how we have done things in the past. This is a journey where adaptability and (re)invention are key elements to the future. I do not believe in the ‘death of the book’ and I believe in the possibilities of the e-book and these beliefs are not at odds. As we journey into this new territory we may have to reconfigure how we use our older tools and art forms but that does not mean they are outmoded or irrelevant.
i. Walsh, John A., Bill Simmons, host, The BS Report with Bill Simmons, podcast (ESPN.com, 27 March 2009).
ii. Alterman, Eric, ‘Out of Print: The Death and Life of the American Newspaper’, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/31/080331fa_fact_alterman (Posted 31 March 2008).
iii. Schreiber, Le Anne, Bill Simmons, host, The BS Report with Bill Simmons, podcast (ESPN.com, 30 March 2009).
iv. Birkerts, Sven, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber and Faber Inc: London, 1996), p. 21.
v. Darnton, Robert, The Case for Books (PublicAffairs: New York, 2009), p. vii.
vi. Manguel, Alberto, George Miller, host, ‘A Reader on Reading’, podcast (Blackwell Online Podcasts, 17 April 2010).
vii. Manguel, Alberto, A Reader on Reading (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2010), p. 196.
viii. Ibid., p. 283.
ix. Manguel, Alberto, The City of Words (Continuum: London, 2008), p. 10.
x. Ibid., p. 13.
xi. Bronson, AA, Keith Griffin, host, ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Book’, podcast (The Art Show, 5 May 2009).
xii. Drucker, Johanna, The Century of Artists’ Books (Granary Books: New York, 2007), p. 2.
xiii. Ibid., p. 33-34.
xiv. Ibid., p. 47.
xv. Ibid., p. 75.
xvi. Ibid., p. 197.
xvii. Ibid., p. 359.
xviii. Bury, Stephen, Artists’ Books: The Books as a Work of Art, 1963-1995 (Scolar Press: Aldershot, 1995), p. 1.
xix. Lauf, Cornelia, ‘Cracked Spines and Slipped Discs’, Artist/Author: Contemporary Artists’ Books (Distributed Art Publishers: Berkeley, 1988), p. 33-34.
xx. Phillpot, Clive, ‘Book Art Digressions’, Artists’ Books (The Hillingdon Press: 1976), p. 19.
xxi. Antaya, Christine, Book Art: Iconic Sculptures and Installations Made from Books (Gestalten: Berlin, 2011), p. 10.
xxii. O’Brien, Glenn, ‘Artists’ Books: Making Literacy Pay’, Artist/Author: Contemporary Artists’ Books (Distributed Art Publishers: Berkeley, 1988), p. 143.
xxiii. Ibid., p. 144.
xxiv. Lenman, Robin, editor, The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford Univerisity Press: Oxford, 2005), p. 463.