Books

How Our Relationship to Books Has Changed Throughout History

Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book traces how the nature of reading changed from an activity practiced by a small number of scholars to a pastime of the masses.

The Book by Amaranth Borsuk (image courtesy MIT Press)

I first discovered Amaranth Borsuk’s work in Between Page and Screen, a romance story, co-authored with Brad Bouse, told through printed visual designs that are activated by a computer webcam. When I learned that Borsuk wrote The Book for MIT Press’s Essential Knowledge series (which provides “specialized subject matter for nonspecialists”), I knew I had to read it. Books have a long history as objects of critical study, to which Borsuk’s 12-page bibliography and seven-page “Further Reading and Writing” section attest. Spanning disciplines, from library science to conceptual art to philosophy, the study of books dates back to early texts like historian and typeface designer Douglas C. McMurtrie’s 1937 The Book: the Story of Printing & Bookmaking, as well as librarian Frederick Kilgour’s The Evolution of the Book (1998), and, more recently, Leah Price’s historical study How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (2012). Borsuk’s book on the book takes on the hefty task of synthesizing this wide-ranging research into a cross-disciplinary summary text that examines both historical and contemporary interest in this iconic form.

Broken into four sections looking at the book as “Object,” “Content,” “Idea,” and “Interface,” Borsuk begins around 2800 BCE in Southern Mesopotamia, tracing the transition from oral to written history. She offers a meticulous account of the object’s predecessors, from cuneiform tablets and scrolls to incunabula (early forms of the printed codex) and manuscripts. This exhaustive lineage fills the first two chapters. While a bit overwhelming, it provides a necessary charting of the relationship between form, content, and reception. As the book changed from something few people could make, read, carry, or own, to something mass-produced and easily possessed, the nature of reading changed from an activity practiced by a small number of scribes and religious scholars, to that of the affluent and well educated, and then, finally, to a pastime of the masses.

“This normalization of reading practices bears remembering,” Borsuk explains, “since from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, our own codex book has been normalized to such a degree that we question the ‘bookness’ of anything that challenges our expected reading experience.” It’s almost hard to imagine that this reading experience was constructed over hundreds of years. With this detailed history, the author provides a rubric for what lies ahead: digital publishing and the current (and future!) landscape of reading, which is equally determined by a tenuous balance between form, content, and culture.

Spread from The Book (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The second half of The Book (“As Idea” and “As Interface”) is devoted to technological and practical advancements made at the hands of artists and designers. Borsuk runs through an extensive list of achievements that will be well known to most readers, and the people behind them: for instance, graphic designer Jan Tschild who, among other things, helped design Penguin’s mass-market paperbacks; William Blake’s 18th-century illuminated manuscripts; Stéphane Mallarmé’s 19th-century page designs based on the structure of newsprint’s columns and typeface; the emergence of artists-as-publishers and conceptual art publications, such as Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) and Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover (1975), which both use the sequential nature of photobooks to turn the physical object into a conceptual space; and performative book-objects such as Emmett Williams’s Sweethearts (1967), and Dieter Roth’s unboxed books from the 1950s and ’60s. These latter works herald a new wave of writing and critical thinking about the book, as both a conceptual and physical object.

Since the invention, in 105 CE, of the codex, which Borsuk defines in her handy glossary as “a block of pages bound on one side between covers,” the bound book has grown beyond its physical form into a metaphor; we call a new start “turning over a new leaf” (an early reference to book pages) and we read people like open books. The author highlights a number of artists’ projects that play on the metaphor of the book as an opening into space and people, as in Fluxus artist Alison Knowles’s The Big Book (1969), a human-sized, freestanding, multipart “book” that viewers would walk around (and, in some cases, through — some of the “pages” had holes to enter in). It is this area that is most interesting in the digital age, as books’ bodies become new forms, yet the metaphors remain at large in our culture.

Spread from The Book (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Johanna Drucker (both a theorist and maker of books) defines artists’ books as books that “integrate the formal means of [their realization] and production with [their] thematic or aesthetic issues.” Drucker is joined by a number of others interested in explaining and exploring this wave of artistic creation. Borsuk notes in particular the writings of art critic and historian Lucy Lippard, who co-founded 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 early history, these figures and their writings are likely familiar to most readers of The Book, who presumably already have some interest in this subject. But what Borsuk does so masterfully is create a fluid timeline that connects these narratives and forms. Much has been written on the history of early European publishing; on graphic design and how movable type transformed book publishing; and on Fluxus and other conceptual art publishing. However, the author covers it all, and retains a relationship between these moments and genres that is always tied to the form of the book.

In her final chapter, “Book as Interface,” Borsuk explains that a good interface is a “transparent vessel through which we access the information we need.” What makes the book arts so interesting are the ways artists push against this. “As with artists’ books, when digital books make the interface a visible and integral part of the narrative, we begin to see the extent to which any book is a negotiation, a performance, a dynamic event that happens in the moment and is never the same twice,” she notes as she transitions from artists’ books to digital publishing. “As the material form of the codex threatens to disintegrate into the digital, works highly attuned to materiality give us a chance to think about and savor the physical artifact, precisely by asking us to reflect on the very immaterial ‘idea’ of the book.” This statement recalls again the metaphoric quality of the book that remains.

Spread from The Book (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Borsuk traces electronic literature as well, from Brewster Kahle’s founding of the Internet Archive in 1996 to the Google Print initiative in 2004 (which became Google Books) and the iPhone and Amazon Kindle releases in 2007. As with her other accounts, this evolution is not a straight line, but one that changes as reading needs, alongside formats and cultural conceptions of a book, change. As she notes near the end, “All books, I hope this volume suggests, arise in the moment of reception, in the hands, eyes, ears, and mind of the reader.” Just as the oral tradition needs an orator, 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. “Both we and the texts we read have bodies, and it is only when they come together that a book takes shape.” With many of us today carrying reading devices in our pockets, and the potential of books to take so many forms at the click of a button, the real question is not what will the book become, but what its readers will become.

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

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