jeweled platypus


tuesday, january 01, 2008
Books are permanent, or at least durable

Note: I have some related bookmarks if you find this post TL;DR.

a pretty artist's book that questions some assumptions about pages and bindings

On Twitter a month or so ago, Vaguery asked “What is a book, besides a conceit?” so I responded, “a couple weeks from now, i could send you my Book Manifesto, the final assignment for this class: [Texts in/and/of Transition: Theories of the Book]”. He said “¶#1 had me interested. ¶#2 had me wondering if we were thinking about the same things in a translatable way.” My assignment turned into a way to answer him; this is a version of what I turned in.

Vaguery (William Tozier) sometimes talks about about scanning out-of-copyright books, which I’m guessing he does to preserve them and make them easier to access, transforming piles of old paper into sets of images and text files that anyone can download and read and appropriate and alter. By removing the folds of a book, laying it flat to copy it into loose-bound digital files, he gives that book a longer intellectual life — a more permanent existence.

My online friends and my friends in literature classes talk with different jargon, but they share a certain amount of anxiety about books. I think they’re seeing the dominant intellectual media shift from paper to screens, which shows up on social websites when we argue about the Kindle and in class when we discuss the nostalgic smell of paper. We worry because books are the most durable way we have to store language, and there are no books inside a computer. I think Vaguery might be wondering what happens to a book when he turns it from paper to bits. Is it still a book? What is a book, anyway?

After asking his question, Vaguery also said, “A book is not words. A book is not pages. A book is typography, and weight, and flow.” In “The Book: A Spiritual Instrument” (1895), Stéphane Mallarmé says a book is the foldings of its pages and “their thickness when they are piled together; for then they form a tomb in miniature for our souls”. But a book needs no typography, no weight, no flow, no folds, no thickness. It is not a tomb. Those are all ways of saying that a book is permanent. A book can be a group of JPG scans of unintelligible handwriting, like the Voynich manuscript viewed thousands of times as a Flickr set. The heavy folded-paper version is rare and expensive; its online incarnation is free of cost and alive with comments yet still gives pretty much the same information to a reader.

a peacock! from an old manuscript

The important part of “bookness” is language stored permanently. Language and permanence take different forms, but it always comes back to that.

In San Francisco on summer mornings, I bought books at sidewalk yard sales for dollars or quarters. Once I walked by one of those sidewalk spots later that day and saw several of those books laid out by themselves on the sidewalk in the dark. I picked up another one and took it home. I think the sellers threw away the similarly neglected old shoes, magazines, and half-broken electronics, but they held some respect for those unwanted books as little piles of information that might be useful to somebody even if their covers sat on the rough sidewalk for a while. People tend not to throw books away lightly.

Books without covers (or some other kind of binding) are unprotected books in danger of disintegrating. I’ve read a lot of mass-market paperbacks that say on the copyright page, “If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as ‘unsold or destroyed’ to the publisher, and neither the author nor the published has received payment for this ‘stripped book.’” Destroyed! Stripped! Those books declare that they are no longer really books if their protective bindings have been removed, and they’re right. Disintegrated books are piles of paper that get scattered and forgotten.

In high school I once left a fraying yellow paperback on a lunch table while I went to go talk to somebody, and when I came back, the book was in pieces on the ground. The people sitting there saw my face and apologized — they were just playing with it — and we picked up the pieces and I organized them back together. I never finished reading it; I had to put rubber bands around it to throw it in my backpack, and it sort of fell apart when I tried to open it anyway.

A different example: a few months ago, the New York Times said “ancient books, hidden for centuries in houses along Timbuktu’s dusty streets and in leather trunks in nomad camps, [are] raising hopes that Timbuktu — a city whose name has become a staccato synonym for nowhere — may once again claim a place at the intellectual heart of Africa.”

But the permanence of a book does not just come from the longevity of its binding and paper. It also comes from lots of copies: sometimes in the form of scribes, sometimes printing presses, sometimes publishers who put out tenth and eleventh editions, and sometimes peer-to-peer filesharing networks. Librarians call this Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. It’s a networked, rhizomatic form of permanence, and it’s one way in which Vaguery is maintaining the bookness of his books. He, like the converters of the Voynich manuscript, lets people obtain a new copy of those old illustrations every time they refresh those pages in their web browsers, making unlimited copies limited by new restraints and challenges to permanence (digital rights management and “other laws of cyberspace”) but not hierarchical paper bindings anymore.

the binding of an old book as palimpsest

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sunday, august 05, 2007
Things I found at the bookstore

Poking around William Stout Architectural Books, I picked up Representing the Passions because “passion” is a loaded word and the cover looked pretty, and I skipped to “Observations on the Natural History of the Web” by Horst Bredekamp, which traces a connection between early modern engravings of personified Nature (including the Leviathan) and late-90’s net art gardens: Nerve Garden, TechnoSphere, and Life Spacies II. I like that connection, and it reminds me of the plant-related net art that Petra Cortright has made recently. Horst Bredekamp has also written a book titled The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine: The Kunstkammer and the Evolution of Nature, Art, and Technology, which means that he is my kind of academic.

Then I flipped around in a big square book of public art, and I liked this gilded staircase in New York:

a gilded staircase in an old concrete bridge structure

The typography books were generally bland, but Dimensional Typography included amusing bits like “The circumflex and the circumcision are both forms of marking. The three-dimensional extrapolation of the circumflex reveals a distinct homology.” and a connection between crowns of thorns and rhizomes.

When I saw Art Deco Bookbindings on a shelf, I knew I would like the subject:

a blue and yellow cover with a house

There’s more here; most of it is nicely geometric, and I especially like the typographic ones near the end.

Then I looked at the industrial design books and found a neat ad:

a comparison of flowers and glasses of similar shapes

It reminds me of The Architecture of Happiness, page 86:

masculine and feminine glasses

The next page continues, “If we can judge the personality of objects from apparently minuscule features…it is because we first acquire this skill in relation to humans, whose characters we can impute from microscopic aspects of their skin tissue and muscle,” which goes back to the book about passion, since it included an essay about systematized representations of strong emotion in faces. Books are annoyingly physical objects though, so I can’t re-read it right now and include more detail. Of course, the most annoying thing is that the contents of books can’t be bookmarked on, so I have to write something about them.

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tuesday, may 15, 2007
Because the world should know

These are my terrible photos of a great story that crushes Ira Glass by Lynda Barry, from her book One! Hundred! Demons!. The rest of this book is good too, and you should buy it so I don’t feel bad about excerpting it here.

the second page

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thursday, february 22, 2007
Reading for learning various things

Books I have re-read or read or am-reading recently:

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward R. Tufte — re-read because my New Media professor assigned an article titled “Cornerstones, Pillars, and Pitfalls of Charting” (written in the 1960’s) and I had to give myself an antidote. It reminded me to use circles, not squares, to represent places on a map I am making for the class, and to make street lines thinner:

goleta and downtown with obscure red squares

I first read that book a few years ago, and I felt how good it looked: soft and proud and correct. Now I know a little bit about small-caps and linespacing, and some of its typographical magic is lost in semi-jaded half-conscious analysis.

The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker — the only non-assigned fiction that I remember reading and enjoying in the past year or two, which is probably because its subject is minutiae (shoelaces, soda straws, footnotes, memory). I like how the book archives things that are now archaic: record players, backless park benches, and grooveless escalator steps, among others. People who are older than me remember those things, like they remember the references in old Bob Dylan songs, but they are less likely to tell me about ancient perceptions of the Rite-Aid brand than to explain a lyric associated with old emotions.

The Medium is the Massage, by Marshall McLuhan — I got this from the library today and read it all at once. I found it laying face-down on the shelf, with an unlabeled spine; I picked it up, and it surprised me. Of course this book would be full of interspersed and full-bleed images of all kinds, strangely large Helvetica, and clever page-turns, but I didn’t realize any of that before I looked inside. Of course! Anyway, now I know what people mean when they talk about this guy as a prophet; I read him as bursting with joy about the potential of the Web in 2007 when he was thinking about the potential of television and telephones in 1967. One of the best parts of this book is the comments in the margins by other students:

this guy *must* be stoned

I have started reading Type & typography: highlights from Matrix, the review for printers and bibliophiles. I requested the book through InterLibraryLoan because Design Observer linked to it, and today my copy arrived here from — where else? — The University of San Francisco. I miss that city. The first article in this collection tells some history of the tension between beauty and utility in typography; I think the articles about setting math and music and bibles and Bengali will be more interesting.

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thursday, january 25, 2007
Writing for new media but not

A few weeks ago, I read a review of From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism and decided it probably wasn’t as good as it sounded. Then David Smith pointed me to an excerpt from the book, and I think I changed my mind. Here are parts that stuck in my head:

…Culture had grown out of man’s biological evolution and had become a force through which humans could recursively influence their biological development. For Ehrlich and Holm, and the young Stewart Brand, cultural activities such as politics, art, conversation, and play took on a deep significance for the survival of the species…Brand could also begin to view the political confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States and its potential for nuclear holocaust in evolutionary terms.

This reminds me of Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation, which discusses nuclear proliferation in evolutionary terms, based on programmed models of cooperation. (I read it during my winter holiday, and a person asked, “Is that for school? No? You mean you couldn’t find anything better to read?” He didn’t know me very well.)

In McLuhan’s view, the individual human body and the species as a whole were linked by a single nervous system, an array of electronic signals fired across neurons in the human body and circulating from television set to television set, radio to radio, computer to computer, across the globe…[His] simultaneous celebration of new media and tribal social forms allowed people like Stewart Brand to imagine technology itself as a tool with which to resolve the twin cold war dilemmas of humanity’s fate and their own trajectory into adulthood.

I like the vision of the internet as a nervous system; it’s all…artificial intelligence. Also, those “cold war” dilemmas have always been relevant. My college is something of a tribal social form, with about 350 people split into eight unruly clans, wrangled together and led by the Dean.

Now switching from biological ideas to design-y ideas.

The Gutenberg Galaxy asserted that mankind was leaving a typographic age and entering an electronic one. With its sequential orientation, its segmented letters and words, McLuhan claimed, the technology of type had tended to create a world of “lineal specialism and separation of functions.” That is, he held type responsible in large part for the development of rationalization, bureaucracy, and industrial life. By contrast, he said, electronic technologies had begun to break down the barriers of bureaucracy, as well as those of time and space, and so had brought human beings to the brink of a new age.

In the first part of “The Futures of Literacy”, which I read for class, Guther Gress discusses the implications of modern society shifting from words and paper to images and the screen. He says a lot of dumb things, but I liked his idea that the main difference between words and images is the difference between time and space: between information arranged in temporal, sequential order and information arranged spatially and simultaneously. Of course that separation gets horribly muddy when you step outside of theory, but it’s interesting.

Anyway, I don’t think McLuhan means that type itself — text — leads to boring standardization. He’s talking about the publishing system embodied in typesetting machines, which concentrated power in bureaucracies that could buy the expensive things. Both desktop publishing and the web are full of type, but it’s inexpensive type that can be easily combined with images, so the power is in the hands of the general public. The age before Gutenberg was typographic too, just even worse in terms of bureacracy and power.

Fuller, like Emerson, saw the material world as the reflection of an otherwise intangible system of rules…What humankind required, [Buckminster Fuller] came to believe, was an individual who could recognize the universal patterns inherent in nature, design new technologies in accord with both these patterns and the industrial resources already created by corporations and the military, and see that those new technologies were deployed in everyday life…In a 1963 volume called Ideas and Integrities, a book that would have a strong impact on USCO and Stewart Brand, Fuller named this individual the “Comprehensive Designer”…an artist and an intellectual migrant…an information processor…a descendent of cold war psychology and systems theory as much as a child of Fuller’s own imagination.

I like how Fuller updated transcendentalism for the internet age by describing a role that a web designer-developer might adapt and inhabit. I also have some extra affection for him because he visited my funky little college on one of his grand educational tours around the country and led a class or two on geodesic domes and “spaceship earth”.

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I’m Britta Gustafson.

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