Rather than about what a book is, or was, or will be and why it is all important to challenge what exactly is a book,
I want to look at where the book is, or was, or will be, and why where the book is is so much part of its importance
both historically and for tomorrow.
Text of a paper for the Charles Nypels Lecture series 2004, The Tomorrow Book,
10 December 2004 at the Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht NL.
Contains additional hyperlinks, notes, a bibliography
as well as some first day-after-tomorrow-book conclusions.
last manual update: 16 December 2004
The tragic beauty of Victor Hugos Waterloo is that the readers feel that things happen independently of their wishes.
Umberto Eco, Vegetal and mineral memory: The future of books, lecture on 1 November 2003, at the occasion of the re-opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina
For a long time, say 5 centuries, the industrialized book, a handheld piece of printed matter, consisting of bound sheets of paper, published in print runs, at a fixed format, organised in pages and chapters, has known no competition. We know what kind of an object is described here: a book which use depends on nothing else but some light falling on its pages, a pair of reading glasses at most, to help focus it, and relatively dry, stable and level reading conditions. Theres our book.
Indeed besides knowing what it is, we know where it is too: Since 500 years it is right at the heart of a tried and tested system of knowledge construction and dissemination. Since its invention this industrial book has become very strong and eminent. It spread all over our places of learning, repositories of knowledge, in the arts and humanities and politics. The book developed steadily to embody the ultimate ideals in wisdom, judicial systems, literature, and a variety of visual expressions. It can be copied, taken apart, re-assembled, and easily destroyed if necessary, without leaving a single trace, but a trail of smoke.
The book beheld everything you always wanted to know about everything and were glad to find in it, minutely described, or visionary evoked, possibly finely illustrated, sometimes richly adorned.
Until, ten odd years ago, some among us announced the end of that book.
Instead of laughing at them, again some of us another party than those first messengers started immediately to protest that partys prediction, defending the book with all the wrong arguments: what other medium there was which we could use in bed, in the bath, on the beach, in bright sunlight or at the light of a candle other than the book? How much comfort was to be found in regular clear type on a clean, back and forth flippable surface! How enjoyable and illuminating were its illustrations, how easily could we cary or send it, how well did this object fit our hand and eye and curious mind... How invisible on the other hand could it be, modestly accommodating an un-hindered access to the content it carried! The book was here to stay, there was no competing it.
All this can not be contested, but those who announced its demise, were not talking about that dear solid thing of a book, the intimate consumer object with its formidable ease of use they were not talking about what the book is, but about where it is. They see its place at the heart of our knowledge systems seriously challenged. They question its exclusivity as the focus of aesthetic pleasure. They do not announce the end of the book, but the end-of-the-book-as-we-know-it. To coincide with the end of knowledge-as-we-know-it. Could they be right?
So rather than about what a book is, or was, or will be and why it is all important to challenge what exactly is a book, I want to look at where the book is, or was, or will be, and why where the book is is so much part of its importance both historically and for tomorrow. I might go as far as to claim that where a book is, is more important than what it is more important certainly for the book of tomorrow which is discussed here today. Where the book is, hence got me the title for todays talk.
UbiBook plays on UbiComp: which is the idea, or ideal, of ubiquitous computing. While it places the computer embedded in the everyday, ubiquitous computing is considered as the opposite of virtual reality, which places the everyday inside the computer and presents it to us in a simulation. Among those book defenders which I told you about just now, are also some who claim that the book has always done both: it merges with the everyday while at the same time it presents us representations of it. The book also at this level would not be easily beaten, they say. I am sorry to say that this is not part of the discussion anymore. There is no competition for what is the book, only for where it is.
Therefor, for a final good look at, for a last poetic description of, what is the book lovers object of desire we pay a nostalgic visit to where the book is: at some second hand book store, somewhere on this planet, brought to you by abebooks.com, where you know youll find fine books all right.
Price: US$ 1,500.00
Book Description: New York: Random House, 1934. 768 pp. 8vo, publishers wheat cloth in dust jacket. First American edition. Bookplate lightly tipped onto front free endpaper, otherwise near fine, in a nice jacket with a light crease to the spine, which is very slightly tanned, and a few short closed tears. A very attractive copy. Bookseller Inventory #10744
or, another copy of the same edition, somewhere in the world, tomorrow in your library, if you can afford it:
Price: US$ 4,500.00
Book Description: New York: Random House, 1934. First American edition. Fine, with tiny scuff-mark to bottom page edges in nearly or very nearly fine jacket, with two minute chips and a minute tear (all about one-eighth inch) to top edge front panel, two minute tears (same size as front panel) to rear panel, and some darkening to spine. The first-issue jacket has Reichl, the designers name, on the front panel, according to my research (no known later printings, which are certainly less likely to be married to non-original dust jackets, with Reichl on the front panel, facsimile jackets that do have Reichl on the front panel, etc.). The jacket on this copy has the name. According to Slocum and Cahoon (1953), this first American edition of Ulysses went through ten printings, the last in 1939, and the jacket priced at $3.50 without Reichl on the front panel is apparently from a later printing (there is no mention of the jacket point itself in Slocum and Cahoon, but this bibliography says next to nothing about the jacket, so that is not surprising). No book, dust jacket, or slipcase in my inventory is restored in any way. Provenance is available on request for any item. Bookseller Inventory #495
or, if you really care, one of the first edition of a 1000 numbered copies:
Price: US$ 75,000.00
Book Description: Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 1922. Original blue printed wrappers. Expertly rebacked in matching paper, without blank endpapers. Fore-edge of front wrapper neatly restored, minimal touchups elsewhere. Minimal soiling to wrappers, slight age-toning to text, mentioned only for the sake of completeness. A very good copy. FIRST EDITION, one of only 1000 numbered copies, the most sought-after book of 20th-century literature. This is one of 750 copies printed on handmade paper; there were also 100 signed copies on Dutch handmade paper and 150 copies on Verg╚ dArches (large paper). The complexities of this book have enthralled and infuriated readers from the day of publication to the present. When Jacques Benoist-Mechin asked to see the scheme of Ulysses in order to translate the final section accurately, Joyce replied: If I gave it all up immediately, Id lose my immortality. Ive put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and thats the only way of insuring ones immortality. Bookseller Inventory #web2310
The idea of the book as ubiquitous, the ubibook, at first hand seems too obvious. Yet the book is not anymore as ubiquitous as the knowledge, the ideas and artistic expression which it is supposed to contain and transport. The book has spread all over since 500 years and still today tries to spread as fast as the wild fire of networked information: infinite in all directions. But the book can not be everywhere at once. Not only its points of distribution multiply, but also the sources for its content. Markets, which as we know depend on maximum volume and maximum traffic are to feed the hungry. If all of us were to lock ourselves in with one book for the rest of our lives a desire every book lover recognizes this would destroy the book market. Even an urban planner I once knew, who limits himself to a four meter long standard bookshelf, at which he always adds new acquisitions on the left side, and gives away those books which as a result of his adding fall off on the right side of it, puts too much of a limit to his consumption. Books want to be produced and distributed in large amounts, in order to keep the important position which they have as the building blocks of our civilizations knowledge, laws and entertainment.
Let me get back to Ubicomp for a moment. It is about hardware, hidden in the woodwork, away from its monolithic position on or under the desktop, to disappear in its architectural environment, taking with it its computation, the processing of data taken out of sight... Ubicomp is a concept from the Xerox PARC lab (Palo Alto Research Center) from the late 1980s, coined by researcher Mark Weiser. Xerox PARC is also the place where a couple of decades before the graphical interface pixels on a screen, the desktop metaphor and the mouse were first experimented. Ubicomp is intended to make the information processing invisible, to lower our threshold for access. Bill Buxton, a colleague of Weiser, is famous for his mantra which repeats: I want my desktop back. Like our urban planner who would like to have his bookshelf back, or others who might want back that room in the house, where their books are lining up, while they are allowed too little time with them. When Columbia University in the early 1990s was faced with a necessary expansion of their library, instead of investing in architecture it was decided to allocate the available funds to the computer infrastructure and media research.
The ideal of knowledge access to be immaterial and democratic like to some designers the ideal book design is invisible, unsichtbar, and the book has an egalitarian distribution is a dream in which all of us are to look through transparent media in order to access pure content. Our perception not to be hindered by technology, or by the design of a book or other container. Do we do not want to see the construction which supports an altogether not superior system of thought and politics and culture, which, to make things even worse, is not divided among us equally either? For those who are designers, authors or just plainly interested in how things are made, how they work and support whatever they do support, any visible construction is a learning opportunity. Their suspension of disbelief is not furthered by making the construction disappear, rather partly visible, included in the content. The book is the message.
Knowledge, laws and the arts are ubiquitous. People who want to know about them are everywhere and no one is to deny them their right of access. Totalitarian systems who clamp to that kind of control seem to be slowly but steadily breaking down, while at the other hand at the same time the last self acclaimed super power and greatest supporter of volume-and-traffic-maximizing market capitalism has great difficulty to keep the book burners off its streets. As much as the democratic ideal of egalitarian access to knowledge is supported, as much there is a fear for all intelligence to be shared and freely available to all, including a societys real or imaginary enemies.
The thing which today spreads really well and wild is of course data. We are all complicit, posting, publishing, uploading, downloading. We are authors to that data plenitude which infrastructure, the Internet, is said to contain no there in there, no fixed place where knowledge resides. Not all data are information (yet) and not all information is knowledge (per se). Distinctions of this kind, in an information age (neither a data age nor knowledge age), have to be scrutinized in publishing at large. Data do build information and information can im-/materialize as knowledge, if given the proper keys and support in its management and use, which is a design topic as much as an editorial one. Is an MP3 music track data, information of knowledge? Is the sharing of MP3 tracks a sharing of data, information or knowledge? Can the market for the sharing of musical tracks model the sharing of other information? It is a market which is fuelled by peer-to-peer recommendation. Like amazon.coms book purchases are fuelled by recommendation. Other readers who bought this book have also bought this book..., and: has this review been useful to you? Recommendation and sharing content (a container term if ever there was one) is a form of democratization, based on the reputation of its source. I got the best books as a present from those who know my interests best. Those who gave me such books I trust, it gave them a reputation for getting me precisely the kind of information that I am interested in, but did not know of yet.
Coming from a tradition of what Richard Lanham in his seminal book The Electronic Word; Democracy, Technology and the Arts simply calls The Great Books, the canonical texts which support our civilization, descending to such simple peer-to-peer musical recommendation seams too much of an iconoclastic event. It illustrates however that where the book is is challenged today, more than anything else. Where, and when, and how we receive the book is totally different from over the past 500 years, because the book is not anymore present where a large part of our knowledge is, while a large part of the worlds knowledge is not necessary present in the book.
As a political aside which I wont go further into in this context, our particular book marked history is also the product of a very particularly selective editorial history if you look into how power relations have worked our perspectives vis-à-vis large parts of the globe and different cultures, whose literacy we are only now seriously considering, after many great mistakes.
So UbiBook looks at book content, unleashed in the everyday. Book and knowledge mobility of course is of all ages. In A History of Reading Alberto Manguel (in the chapter The Shape of the Book) tells the story of book portability from Mesopotamiam clay tablets to the Penguin paperback, via (papyrus and) parchment scrolls and codexes the latter introducing the known book shape, with margined pages and the beginning of book organisation, in chapters and volumes all through printing, when books came in increasing print runs, therefor became available (and affordable) for personal use and therefor could be reduced in size and weight, which again afforded portability and emergence of a book market. Books became truly mobile. They started to travel. They started to penetrate the everyday. The question where the book is becomes interesting with its industrial production, at a time when also distance becomes bridged and places are linked, in an equally industrial speed and manner. In 1848 W.H. Smith and Sons open the first Railway bookstall at Londons Euston Station. Publishers produced e.g. the Railway Library, Travellers Library or even the Run and Read Library series. The English publisher Allen Lane in 1935, on July 30 brought the first ten Penguin titles to the market, which expanded their distribution to include tea-shops, stationers and tobacconists and finally in an attempt to break even at 17.000 copies sold per title, at Woolworth department stores. The book has arrived where its readers are and go.
When and where the industrialized book sprung to its inventors imagination, how it was produced and distributed has been a matter of the convergence of different technologies and their affordances. Paper, oil based inks, movable reusable type and later distribution, transport, again later electricity and consumer culture... to reach critical mass in todays commodity based mass media market. Public electricity, and public transport together at the end made for their finest invention, the reading light in the bus, train or airplane, the only condition to be met to enter a book at night.
Today, in the age of the electronic word, (public and private) electricity and (public and private) data transport make for altogether new kinds of figure-on-ground penetration, as SMS and photo/video messaging conquer the mobile screens that can be addressed right there in our pocket, where it lives next to that worn and torn paperback, for the mobile reader.
Umberto Eco in a recent appearance, distinguished two kinds of books: books to read and books to consult. As a consequence to this difference you will find different books in different places, on different shelves. The second, those books to consult, serve general knowledge. They are part of the democratic educational agenda. They must be found in school and university libraries, public libraries, to serve educational equality: information and knowledge access to all. Serving the public information availability slogan of what is optimistically called the age of information: all information available to anyone, anywhere at any time. Books to consult change with the subject matter which is browsed, containing information which is actually updated ever once in a while, when a new print of the respective volume is produced, or addenda are added to the original title. These addenda speed up in different fields of printed matter. Travel guides and maps, hasten to shape themselves after changing territories, as they are taken along by us, to be matched against these. These days we see (e.g. Michelin) maps being reprinted every year... France 2004, France 2005? Whats the hurry? In a race to remain accurate in reference to the terrain they represent, they reach for near for real time monitoring. Their multiple layers are divised into more and less stable formations. The less speedy ones of geology, the more speedy ones of traffic infrastructure. Not only do maps speed up, also they diversify in relation to the speed of the traffic (or the travellers interest) which they serve.
To have another look at a different and important readers interest (vis-à-vis speed and change) we return to Eco. The tragic beauty of any book is that it contains a fixed universe, fixed by an author (c.s.) who decided on that universes limits and conditions, and on how its narrative develops. Umberto Eco in his lecture distinguishes two types of books: books to read and books to consult. It is the first that at the end of his talk he ascribes tragic beauty. The latter are encyclopaedias, handbooks. They have an altogether different relation to the universes which are described in them.
So where is the book again? Where there is a reader, theres the book. Ubi Lector, Ibi Liber. Some books you dont want to see change under your hands. They provide you different from road map style guidance. Different books have different liabilities, serve different time spans, have different sustainability, too. Books to read (to stay with Ecos distinction), can be read for-ever, over and over by different generations of readers. They travel well in time. The language in which they have been written might map a different time period, other monuments which are described in them might have been torn down (both architectural, as well as institutional, as well as vis-ř-vis the human interests which supports the institutionalization of also human relationships), what remains is their tragic beauty.
Data, information, knowledge are not always in a hurry.
For the book to settle in what is possibly a new role in information and knowledge building, one will have to study its relationship to other media which have been around for only a short while. They have by no means depleted their possibilities, we can easily grant them 5 centuries or a little less, to come to their fulfilment.
One last remark therefor will have to be about time and its passing. There is no such medium for posterity as mineral memory carbon or silicium... Parchment is very fine. Acid free paper is excellent for its industrial use, acidulous paper doing a bit less in the light of eternity. What is worst for record keeping, as all industries repeat to us, is digital/optical media. The best preservation guideline still is to keep the hardware with the software, which is called the museum option in conservation: my vintage Macs in the attic which might serve access to my floppy-based electronic edition of Lanhams book... In order to preserve all my other books, I am not forced to keep the shelf, the library, the house.
I will be left with some of the books information to age with me, and keep those precious objects at hand, in a sense also against time. I will hand them down, when I myself one day fall of the shelf. I know perfectly well where I want my book to be at that moment. In my library. Like Kees Fens, a well known Dutch essayist, once wrote: the sole purpose of those many unread books on the shelf is to be there with us and to be at hand whenever we need, or those who come after us will want to reach for them.
Keep those books at hand for tomorrow reference...
The History of Printing
Many people went into the printing business and went right back out again. The reason was that the distribution of books was poorly organized. The market was there, and the potential for filling the demand, but the transport and control and advertising mechanisms were not in place.
The Media History Project Connections Pages: Printing & Print Culture
Print situates words in space more relentlessly than writing ever did... By and large, printed text are far easier to read than manuscript texts. The effects of the greater legibility of print are massive. The greater legibility makes for rapid, silent reading. Such reading in turn makes for a different relationship between the reader and the authorial voice in the text and calls for different styles of writing...
Manuscript culture is producer-oriented... Print is consumer-oriented...
Walter Ong, Print, Space, and Closure, published in
Communication in History, David Crowley & Paul Heyer, eds.
Project Gutenberg is the Internets oldest producer of FREE electronic books (eBooks or eTexts). Project Gutenberg is the brainchild of Michael Hart, who in 1971 decided that it would be a really good idea if lots of famous and important texts were freely available to everyone in the world.
Electronic Media and the Book
The Hypermedia Research Center (School of Media, Art and Design at Westminster University, London)
Digital Media for the Transmission of Knowledge 2004
Spiraling timeline of Technology
Pictorial History of Media Technology
UbiScribe (pervasive publishing in networked media)
Electronic Book Review
The Pixel/The Line section
Most text that appears on computer screens acts little different from text on paper. It sits on a virtual page, perhaps reflowing if the pages dimensions are altered. It goes away if we scroll beyond it, or if we perform one of the established analogues for page-turning (usually a button-click of some sort). More exotically, our mouse clicks may animate screen text, or we may select pages by typing commands rather than pressing buttons.
Octavo Digital Rare Books a fund of enhanced classical printed tomes
Xerox PARC UbiText project (taking text from page images and turning it into reflowable content)
Questia online library
librarian.net (librarian weblog)
Wikibooks open content free textbook initiative
Wikipedia E open encyclopaedia
Wikipedia NL open encyclopedie
(more to be added)
notes (that did not make it to the final text)
(cultural expression... what about knowledge unfit for the book format? Or rather: different knowledge emerges from the book than emerges from e.g. hypermedia, a painting, a sculpture, an installation, video, etc.)
The book as a link and a position in a chain of knowledge moments, not monuments.
(when can knowledge be acquired: at any difference in knowing between two parties, which meets with a desire of one of the parties to learn: only when a party recognizes manifest knowledge with another party knowledge is ac-knowledged)
If we were to draw up a check list for the preservation, distribution and accessibility of knowledge and information, taking into consideration the sustainability of the media concerned, we would have to take notice
- where is the (this or that, whatever) knowledge gem? (is it to be read or consulted, according to Ecos categories)
- where does it (have to) go?
- how long does it have to be preserved?
(for the sake of this list, disregard: cultural limitations and relevance? And e.g. do we want this knowledge to be translated to other cultural platforms?)
- in which linguistic code/format is it? (text, language; image, language; sound, language...)
- in which data/format is it encrypted, and/or compressed? (programming, language... analogue/digital: what is the key? data protocols, standards?)
- does it port to another medium, and if so how is it translated and at what cost? (economy and integrity of data)
- how sustainable is its current medium? (how much longer can it repeat its knowledge presentation, without loss of information)
- how sustainable is the medium it could be ported to?
- in other words: when is the knowledge's expiration date (media time bomb)
- who currently owns/supports this knowledge?
- whose responsibility/desire is to preserve it?
- if we are looking at two different parties: will the owner and the preservation party talk to each other (IP, economic value)
- who will port it to another medium, or copy it in the same for another extension of its life
- do different kinds of knowledge combine?
- do their media combine?
- how do we bring their media together?
- does preservation bring loss of information?
- does preservation bring loss of 'penetration'?
- does preservation bring loss of accessibility?
- if any of these losses occur, when and where will they occur and how important is that?
= research agenda book and other media for knowledge preservation, transaction, distribution and presentation.
bibliography (to follow as soon as I will get back to my library)
Richard Lanham, The Electronic Word, Democracy, Technology and the Arts, 1993 University of Chicago Press, isbn 0-226-46883-6
Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, 1997 Penguin Books, isbn 0-140-16654-8
Vilém Flusser, Die Schrift, 19xx
conclusions (the book is the message)
Epilogue. Close up. Close reading. Close book making. The book can only be contemplated in its current and coming position among other knowledge and entertainment media. Some of its traditional content will for ever flow into the book. Long texts, linear narratives, fixed stories and a variety of tangible interface depending material will find in text, image, in ink on paper and board their ultimate expression.
At the end of the day, also the book is a medium with a message.
Some of the books content will benefit from a direct connection to unstable information. Such information lives in networked media. It can be unstable for many reasons. The two most common are: 1) the information becomes obsolete, has to be updated and/or added to when new relevant material becomes available; 2) necessary additional information is optimally represented in a non-linear and/or interactive format, or contains time-based data.
If information with superior format and readability in the printed book is to be linked to information which has it superior format and accessibility in a different medium, clever attention has to be paid to the design of the link. Links between material and information realitydont easily follow through. A URL on a page is only a modest start. The link obviously will have to connect in both directions between media. A book note on a screen is only a modest start.
correspondence (write to jk for example at the idie.net domain)
other access (notes quotes provocations and other fair use; exquisite enclave exquise)
idie.net (innovation and design for information empowerment dot net, 1999-2004)