English 738T, Spring 2015
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Hacking the print book

Posted by Manon Soulet on Sunday, February 22nd, 2015 at 12:50 am

Jumping from our presentation on the Blake Archive a couple weeks ago, I would like to dedicate this blog post to one particular issue raised by digitizing Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – and, generally speaking, by the process of digital remediation – that is the question of the materiality of the print book and its implications.

What do you lose by getting rid of the book? What does the print book offer that the digital one does not? Does the change of frame affect our reception of Blake’s work? According to Andrew Piper in Dreaming in Books, in the 19th century, “it was precisely the materiality of the book that provided the contours to such imagining, indeed to the imagination itself.” But what about TMHH? Blake himself experimented with the concept of the book by combining textual and visual elements in order to unsettle the reader’s reception; eventually contributing to the redefinition of literature. Blake already complicated the traditional signification of the book. With the development of digital technology, the role of the print book is no longer evident.

 Is literature contained within the print book? According to Piper, it was during the 19th century that this idea started to spread with “the emergence of this nexus between the book and literature”. Yet, the growing popularity of devices like Kindles and e-books seem to disprove it. Indeed, digitizing a book amounts to separating literature and print book by transposing literature onto another platform, another space removed from the physical book. According to Piper, it leads us to “reimagine a literary work as residing not in a single book but as part if an interrelated bibliographic network.” Matthew Kirschenbaum in his article entitled “Bookscapes: Modeling Books in Electronic Space” enriches this discussion by explaining that “books on the screen are not books, they are models of books.” What is literature then? For Katherine N. Hayles in “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis”, literature is to be met as “the interplay between form and medium.” Following this statement, we may wonder: what does a book do? To answer this question, Kirshenbaum identifies for instance what he calls five affordances of the book: “books are simultaneously sequential and random access”, “books are volumetric objects”, “books are finite”, “books offer a fundamentally comparative space”, and finally “books are writeable”.

As Piper explains about in the 19th century: “Adapting to books… was not something that just happened. It necessitated significant reorganizations of both social and individual identities.” The apparition of a new cultural media affected individual identities. The same can be said today about the development of digital culture. As a result of remediation, literature becomes a social experience, a collective process. It no long constitutes a private, intimate experience, but a public and interconnected one, shared across the WWW.

The same transition – from private to collective – goes for the print book itself. When we read a book online, it seems that the question of possession comes into account. We cannot possess anything online because we, as users, are separated from the object in question. And few people know better than students/lovers of literature that a book constitutes a valuable possession. Yet, considering that possessions sometimes work as a way to complete a person, it seems that when we are online, we are losing that sense of possession, and by extension, that sense of completeness. In this sense, reading a book online may, in a way, amount to losing or at least to dispense with a part of ourselves. Moreover, the remediation from print book to the web implies moving the text from a stable and monolithic structure to one that is ever changing. The digital space thrives on evolution; it guarantees interconnection, universal access, and no virtual limits, which in theory sounds like an ideal accomplishment. Yet, as a fluid form of communication, it also constitutes a space of constant mobility and updating, a tool that escapes control and with which the individual can never keep up and can even potentially lose him/herself.

Could a system based on universal access and inclusion turn out to be alienating? Are books bound to undergo re-edition, re-appropriation, transformation, and maybe eventually, disintegration? It sounds like a dreadful prospect – maybe something to think about…

Hayles, N K. “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: the Importance of Media-Specific Analysis.” Music Educators Journal. 90 (2004): 67-90. Print.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “Bookscapes: Modeling Books in Electronic Space”. Human-Computer Interaction Lab 25th Annual Symposium. May 29, 2008.

Piper, A. “Dreaming in Books: the Making of the Bibliographic Imagination in the Romantic Age.” Literature & History. 20.2 (2011): 97. Print.



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3 Responses

  • Ruth says:

    As a student and a person who loves literature I agree that I enjoy possessing physical copies of books, but I only really feel adamant about ‘owning’ the books I REALLY love. In fact, I currently own four copies of The Little Prince; two older editions in English, a newer one in French, and a pop-up book version that is unnecessary, but beautiful. Why do I have so many copies? I don’t really know except I like the idea of being able to access the story in different forms and languages if I want and simply having it on my shelf where I can access it easily is strangely comforting. Other books, novels I have bought for classes or books I picked up at a whim at a book sale are not comforting me by being on a shelf they are merely occupying the space. In fact, when purchasing books for classes I often look for electronic books first. I know that this is a matter of preference for many people, whether they prefer print or electronic versions, but the electronic text seems more practical to me for class purposes since you can easily search the text when looking for particular references, annotate it with notes and highlights, and save those notations for easy access later. I can even access popular highlights from other readers. In my case, what a book (physical copy) does, is reflect an emotional response a nostalgia and comfort. These feelings are accompanied by a weird sense of gratification stemming from my ability, or perceived ability, to understand these texts and ‘own’ them literally and metaphorically in a way that contributes to my own understanding of ‘self’ since I can reference these books that in turn reflect something of my own self.
    Do electronic books elicit the same kind of response, or rather, could they? I think it goes back to your point about how electronic books feel more like a communal than a personal possession. Like I said earlier, even the books I download onto my personal kindle have highlights and notes from others that I can access. While being able to access those notes is helpful it reminds me that this text is not just mine. My own highlights are being tracked and monitored in a way that potentially alters other reader’s experiences with the text. I am a part of a community of readers in a much more visible way than I am with a print book. For example, I own a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets that seems to have previously been owned by some type of student who wrote copious notes and underlined in most of the sonnets. When I read the sonnets I look at her notes and know that I am not the only one to have read the text and if I were to pass it on with my own highlights my notations would be there for the next owner, but this kind of ‘shared’ reading is not the same as the electronic one. For one, while I own the Shakespeare text I also ‘own’ the notes that are on it since they are unique to that text while the notes on the electronic texts do not belong to me (in fact, even my notes are not completely mine since they are being tracked). How do these different kinds of ‘interactive’ texts, interactive in the sense that texts are being altered by the reader in ways that potentially alter how it is read, alter our understanding of texts? What avenues does the kind of communal reading and notation that ebooks present open up to the practice of reading and literary criticism? Do we care about whether other readers find the same passages as us interesting? What about the passages that get ignored? Just thinking about the kind of data that might be generated and studied thanks to ebooks makes them seem more ‘open’ in way than print texts.

  • Maura-Kate Costello says:

    If, as Manon points out, the technology of the print book changed individual identities, then how is the new cultural media of the digital text affecting our individual identities? How does it reconceive who we are within the collective?

    Pre-worldwideweb, in order for a person to obtain a book, s/he had to take themselves either to a library or a bookstore, or perhaps a friend. This action involved the movement of that person’s body from one place to another that had books, along with other people who managed/distributed those books. I realize the experience with books is much more varied than the summary account I’ve just given, but my point is that experiences with books seem to have always demanded greater engagement from the body, and involved direct in-person interaction with other individuals. With digital media, accessible without moving from one’s desk or needing even to speak with another individual, these tangential aspects around print books are gone.

    Why point this out? Well, it would seem to suggest a conception of self that is more and more abstracted from the body, and an experience of the collective that is more and more isolated from other real bodies. And this is problematic because we do live in bodies, and to ignore them is to neglect a crucial aspect of our existence. It is also to flatten our experience of the world and literature, because more and more of it comes through the same rectangular dimensions of our backlit screens. Digital media gives the illusion that texts exist outside the physical (or only within the flat physicality of the computer screen), and so invite/encourage/demand the reader to conceive of him/herself in the same way. Interacting with digital media encourages the user to forget about/become unaware of all but one’s mind, (and possibly one’s hands and eyes). Additionally, it flattens the experience with others by reducing their bodily existence to their words on a screen. This is problematic because we exist in bodies that are more than minds hands and eyes. Digital media encourages us to reconceive of ourselves and others in a way that forgets about the bodies we inhabit. This kind of isolation (within oneself and from others) is not conducive to knowledge. We learn through our entire bodies, not only our minds and eyes, and digital media is unable to provide more than those stimuli.

    Digital media seeks to transcend the limits of physical existence by, as Manon states, “guarantee[ing] interconnection, universal access” among other things like instant access, greater means to manipulate/pirate texts, etc. But, if these affordances cannot stick because they don’t acknowledge the limits of the bodies that use digital media, its “space of constant mobility and updating, [remains] a tool that escapes control and with which the individual can never keep up and can even [cause a person to] potentially lose him/herself” i.e. because these changes are not permitted to take root in a body. Not, of course, because there’s no body receiving the digital information, but because the digital media doesn’t provide the necessary conditions for that taking root to take place (i.e. time, space).

    As a last side note: I think it’s interesting that the kind of abstraction that the form of digital media fosters seems antithetical to so many of the intellectual/ideological movements of the last several decades that seek evermore to contextualize, historicize and understand the embodied existence of persons, events and ideas under study. I wonder how digital media is seeking to respond to this problem, if it even sees it as such.

  • Amanda Gogarty says:

    As an English M.A. who is concentrating in rhetoric and composition (a field that seems to be a bit more inviting to digital media than some more traditional, literary concentrations,) this post is especially interesting to me. Although I love reading books in print and feel like they have certain qualities than I am hesitant to want to replace with digital works, I also feel as though digital media offers many characteristics and opportunities that aren’t so easily accessible in print copies.

    Reading Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl has really opened my eyes to how enjoyable reading a digital work can be, however it is an interesting case at the same time, since it isn’t the most easily accessible (i.e.- you can’t simply download it online or access it from the internet.) In thinking about the question of ownership in regard to this particular work, I think it is especially interesting, since there is a lot of definite disconnect between Eastgate’s sense of ownership and Shelley Jackson’s. While Jackson states that she wants her readers to be “piratical readers, plagiarists, and opportunists in her article “Stitch Bitch,” Eastgate seems to prevent this in a lot of ways through the very way they limit reader access to her work. I feel as if making her text more easily accessible online and downloadable from the internet (even for a fee,) would really help foster the kind of transience that Jackson seems to call for in the reading of her work. I wonder how (and if) reader responses/the conversation centering around this work would develop if it weren’t for Eastgate exercising such authorial control over this text (even though they aren’t even the authors themselves.) We often think of digitalizing a work as a way in which the author can lose control over his or her own work, but considering the way in which Eastgate imposes limited access and ownership rules over PWG is another way in which the author can lose control over his or her own work. I wonder at what point can an author really own his or her own text when is published by an outside party (especially in Jackson’s case, where their rules actually seem to conflict with Jackson’s own creative intent?)

    You also bring up a really interesting point about the possibility that reading a text online can lead us to lose or compromise a part of ourselves, since these texts often exist in a more communal, forum-based medium in which they can constantly be altered and/or debated on by multiple readers at once who can often see and respond to each other’s comments. Personally, I feel like this is one of the most compelling aspects of recent digital media. I am really receptive to the way in which reading texts online can alter and inform one’s reading, and I am definitely interested in seeing how this way of approaching texts develops in years to come. Thank you for sharing!

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