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

comments (8)

I will read this with relish (ketchup being too messy for the laptop) as a step in an exploratory conversation. When my head works a bit better; still New Year's morning, here.

But for a sense of the scale here at our household's digitization effort:
Bill Tozier on 1/1/2008 06:17:02

My father worked very hard to get his books accepted by major New York or London publishers. This wasn't just because of the prestige, and certainly not the money. A book issued by a "real" publisher immediately enters the Heavenly Library: it's in libraries everywhere, in the Library of Congress, and shipped automatically to bookstores over a wide area. The result is the nearest thing to permanence any artist can get. A hundred years from now someone might idly grab a free copy and enjoy his work.
substitute on 1/2/2008 14:55:07

Thoughts, still in disarray:

If we can be said to "specialize" at all in what we scan for Distributed Proofreaders, I'd have to say Barbara and I focus on magazines. Most (since they're public domain works) are mid-19th Century. I'm thinking of the _Galaxy_, or the _Knickerbocker New-York Monthly_, or _Ainslee's_ --- where famous novels were originally published as serials. We buy bound volumes, and the novels were published there in chunks, sometimes spanning several physical books. And then, some day (typically) after the last episode was published in the magazine, a "first edition" of the book was published. Often, there are substantial auctorial and editorial differences between the serialized "draft" edition and the final "real book". So one way of looking at the question at hand is: _which_ is the actual book?

Say Google or Microsoft or UC Berkeley or I scan a book. I produce page images of my edition, with marginalia from some crackpot/vandal/scholar/genius/other crackpot. This new "preserved" copy of the page images includes those marginalia. When one produces a machine-readable OCRed (or transcribed) version of this "book", why does it feel _wrong_ to include the marginalia and underlining? Why does it feel _right_ to do so if the marks were made by the author herself? Or a famous and influential reviewer? Are they the book?

I have scanned and OCRed books that Google, some libraries and even other contributors to Project Gutenberg have already "done". Not just different editions, but the same edition. The resultant texts are almost certainly different, even if they come from the same original edition. Which is... well "the" book? The last one? The closest to the print edition? If the latter, then what of different print editions of the same book? 19th Century presses like Lupton or A. L. Burt or any of the big copyright infringement presses of the late 1800s -- they all did terrible jobs typesetting books they were reprinting, with innumerable errors and typos and editorial elisions. Were these then "different books"?

So these are unconnected thoughts; facets of the place I'm trying to find. The physicality and coherence of a book, its very permanence, is perhaps the conceit I was thinking about. You wrote "this book"? Fine, sit down and write it again, without copying. You printed "this book"? Did you ask the author to confirm every letter printed? You preserved "this book"? Why does my copy have a different number of illustrations, but no difference in the text blocks (indeed, it has identical type blocks on all pages)?

I think, upon writing this, I'm heading towards a question like, "Why does the idea of 'a book' have more or less validity than an idea of 'a race' or 'an idea'.
Bill Tozier on 1/2/2008 16:11:09

Heh yeah, that's an important set of things to consider and I didn't cover it at all here. I think people in the literary side of things do think about it a lot, though -- prominently with Shakespeare, where no text of the play is the ultimate one, and the editor's marginalia is part of the value of each "book". People still recognize his plays as these weird cohesive units, but as ones that are different each time they're published or performed. And this stuff is also part of thought about translations of the same "book" into different languages -- they're all separate books, but they're also the same book.

But the first time I realized this sort of complexity existed was when I had just started to pirate music and I was trying to find the "right" metadata for the songs -- each song had several different versions on several different albums, and sometimes the title on the CD and the album cover didn't match. There was no way to tell which one was "right". Yikes! So I chose whatever metadata seemed useful to me.

So yeah..."books" are unruly, like folk songs and movies and words and other cultural products. It is good, and it is a good thing to remember for people who are in the computery side of things and designing book stuff for people to use.
britta on 1/6/2008 02:03:27

And this doesn't even cover the fact that everybody *knows* "where fore art thou Romeo" means "hey, where the heck did he get to, that Romeo guy?" That is, the slips of not just linguistic but cultural knowledge as the "permanent" book moves out of the context. Or: Is Joyce's _Ulysses_ the same book when read aloud?
Bill Tozier on 1/7/2008 19:21:52

Uh oh! So a book might be more durable than other kinds of texts, but it still changes every time it gets published or read or commented upon. Well, that's OK. Complicated is good.
britta on 1/8/2008 20:12:16

macuser on 1/9/2008 07:15:46

Britta, what did I tell you about words? No good.
Lizzy on 1/20/2008 13:19:17

comments are off. for new comments, my email address is


I’m Britta Gustafson.

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