How our relationship to books has changed throughout history

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The book by Amaranth Borsuk (image courtesy of MIT Press)

I discovered for the first time the work of Amaranth Borsuk in Between the page and the screen, a love story, co-written with Brad Bouse, told through printed visual designs that are activated by a computer webcam. When I heard that Borsuk had written The book for MIT Press’s Essential Knowledge series (which offers “specialist topics for non-specialists”), I knew I had to read it. Books have a long history as objects of critical study, as evidenced by Borsuk’s 12-page bibliography and the seven-page “Other Readings and Writings” section. Spanning disciplines from librarianship to conceptual art to philosophy, the study of books dates back to early texts such as historian and type designer Douglas C. McMurtrie’s 1937 The book: the history of printing and book creation, as well as librarian Frederick Kilgour The evolution of the book (1998) and, more recently, the historical study by Leah Price How to do things with books in Victorian Britain (2012). Borsuk’s book on the book undertakes the daunting task of synthesizing this far-reaching research into an interdisciplinary synthesis text that examines both historical and contemporary interest in this iconic form.

Divided into four sections examining the book as “Subject”, “Content”, “Idea” and “Interface”, Borsuk begins around 2800 BCE in southern Mesopotamia, tracing the transition from oral history to history. written. It offers a meticulous account of the object’s predecessors, from cuneiform tablets and scrolls to incunabula (first forms of the printed codex) and manuscripts. This exhaustive lineage fills the first two chapters. Although a little overwhelming, it provides a necessary mapping of the relationship between form, content, and reception. As the book evolved from something few could make, read, wear, or own, to something mass produced and easily owned, the nature of reading shifted from an activity practiced by a small number of scribes and religious scholars to that of the wealthy and well educated, and then, finally, to a hobby of the masses.

“This standardization of reading practices is worth remembering,” Borsuk explains, “from a 21st century perspective, our own codex book has been standardized to such a degree that we question the ‘deliverability’ of everything. which defies our expectations. reading experience. It’s almost hard to imagine that this reading experience was built over hundreds of years. With this detailed story, the author provides a column for what lies ahead: digital publishing and the current (and future!) Reading landscape, which is also determined by a fine balance between form, content and culture.

Spread of The book (author’s photo for Hyperallergic)

The second half of The book (“As Idea” and “As Interface”) is devoted to technological and practical advances made by artists and designers. Borsuk goes through a long list of accomplishments that will be well known to most readers and the people behind them: for example, graphic designer Jan Tschild who, among others, helped design Penguin’s paperbacks for the Penguin market. mass ; the illuminated 18th century manuscripts of William Blake; the 19th century page drawings by Stéphane Mallarmé based on the column structure and the typeface of newsprint; the emergence of artist-publishers and conceptual art publications, such as that of Ed Ruscha Twenty-six gas stations (1962) and Michael Snow Cover to cover (1975), who both use the sequential nature of photo books to transform the physical object into a conceptual space; and performative object-books like that of Emmett Williams Lover (1967) and Dieter Roth’s Unwrapped Books of the 1950s and 1960s. This latest work heralds a new wave of writing and critical thinking about the book, as both a conceptual and a physical object.

Since the invention in 105 CE of the codex, which Borsuk defines in his practical glossary as “a block of pages bound on one side between the covers”, the bound book has become a metaphor beyond its physical form; we call a new beginning “turning a new leaf” (an early reference to the pages of books) and we read people like open books. The author highlights numerous projects by artists who play on the metaphor of the book as an opening to space and people, as in the work of Fluxus artist Alison Knowles. The ledger (1969), a human-sized, self-contained, multipart “book” that viewers skimmed through (and, in some cases, through – some of the “pages” had holes to enter). It is this area that is most interesting in the digital age, as the bodies of books become new forms, but metaphors remain widespread in our culture.

Spread of The book (author’s photo for Hyperallergic)

Johanna Drucker (both theorist and creator of books) defines artists’ books as books which “integrate the formal means of [their realization] and manufacture with [their] thematic or aesthetic questions. Drucker is joined by a number of other people interested in explaining and exploring this wave of artistic creation. Borsuk notes in particular the writings of art critic and historian Lucy Lippard, co-founder of Printed Matter in New York; Ulises Carrión, founder of the artist book space Other Books and So in Amsterdam and author of the 1975 manifesto The new art of making books; and Dick Higgins, a Fluxus artist and publisher of Something Else Press. As with the beginnings of the story, these characters and their writings are probably familiar to most readers of The book, who probably already have some interest in this topic. But what Borsuk does so masterfully is create a fluid timeline that connects these narratives and shapes. Much has been written on the history of the first European editions; on graphic design and how movable type transformed book publishing; and on Fluxus and other concept art editions. However, the author covers it all, and maintains a relationship between those moments and genres that is always tied to the form of the book.

In his final chapter, “Book as Interface”, Borsuk explains that a good interface is a “transparent container through which we access the information we need”. What makes the book arts so interesting are the ways in which artists oppose it. “As with artists’ books, when digital books make the interface a visible and integral part of the story, we begin to see how any book is a negotiation, a performance, a dynamic event that occurs in the story. ‘instant and never the same twice,’ she notes as she moves from artist’s books to digital publishing. “As the material form of the codex threatens to disintegrate in the digital, highly material-sensitive works give us a chance to think about and savor the physical artefact, precisely by asking us to reflect on the very ‘idea’. immaterial of the book. “This statement is again reminiscent of the metaphorical quality of the book that remains.

Spread of The book (author’s photo for Hyperallergic)

Borsuk also traces electronic literature, from the creation of the Internet Archive by Brewster Kahle in 1996 to the Google Print initiative in 2004 (which became Google Books) and the iPhone and Amazon Kindle versions in 2007. As with its Other accounts, this development is not a straight line, but one that changes as reading needs change, alongside the formats and cultural conceptions of a book. As she notes near the end, “All books, I hope this volume suggests, arise upon receipt, in the reader’s hands, eyes, ears, and mind.” Just as oral tradition needs a speaker, a book needs a reader to be activated. Even the most conceptual examples of art books play with the performative aspect of words waiting to be read. Books are physical objects whose properties dictate these experiences. “We and the texts we read have a body, and it is only when they come together that a book takes shape. With many of us today with reading devices in our pockets, and the potential for books to take so many shapes with the click of a button, the real question is not what happens to the book, but what will happen to its. readers.

The book by Amaranth Borsuk (2018) is published by MIT Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.


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