New Visions For The Book – Part I

A few weeks ago the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University brought together a group of digital humanists of diverse disciplinary backgrounds as part of the unique summer institute One Week | One Tool. The aim of One Week | One Tool was to come up with an (open source) digital tool to aid humanities scholarship. The catch was that this whole process of tool-building could take no longer than a week. The tool the group came up with and, as part of the deal, actually build, is called Anthologize. Anthologize, as the tagline proclaims, ‘use(s) the power of WordPress to transform online content into an electronic book.’ The idea is that you can grab content from your own blog or other blogs, order it, determine the layout and publish it, both in print and in different electronic formats.

Next to being a refreshing project and a useful tool, what I found interesting about Anthologize is the (implicit) notion that lies behind it’s conception, namely the idea of what a scholarly book should or can be.

Anthologize it

Let’s take a closer look at a blogpost about Anthologize written by Dan Cohen, the director of the Center for History and New Media. Cohen is a historian who, in his own words, ‘explores—and tries to influence through theory, software, websites, and his blog—the impact of computing on the humanities.’ In the post he wrote to introduce Anthologize, there are a few interesting preconceptions concerning the book. For instance, he begins his post with stating the following:

A long-running theme of this blog has been the perceived gulf between new forms of online scholarship—including the genre of the blog itself—and traditional forms such as the book and journal.”

This sentence is very interesting for various reasons. First of all Cohen talks about the perceived (and thus not real) gulf between online scholarship, such as the blog, and traditional forms such as the book. Furthermore he states that the book and the blog are both forms of scholarship, they are just different genres. Finally, he refers to how discussions surrounding the scholarly book mostly have been conducted by opposing new online forms of scholarship to traditional print scholarship such as the book and the journal.

Further on Cohen explains more in detail what Anthologize has to offer:

Today marks the launch of this effort: Anthologize, software that converts the popular open-source WordPress system into a full-fledged book-production platform. Using Anthologize, you can take online content such as blogs, feeds, and images (and soon multimedia), and organize it, edit it, and export it into a variety of modern formats that will work on multiple devices.”

In this sentence it becomes clear that both Cohen and the One Tool | One Week people argue for a concept of the book that goes beyond the print format, where in their view books can be delivered in various formats (including, but not exclusively, print) suitable to be read on (and by) various devices. Furthermore, they—I would say consciously—push for a broad(er) idea of what a book can consist off: in their vision a (scholarly) book can, besides text, consist of all kinds of multimedia content. Furthermore, it can consist of material that has been previously online available—hence published—such as blogposts. Thus with Anthologize a book becomes a selection of online available material which can be expanded with new texts and/or multimedia content. Finally, it offers the creator of the book the possibility to instantly publish the book her or himself, without the help of publishers or self-publishing platforms.

As I will state, with this tool Cohen and the people from One Week | One Tool argue for a concept of the book that goes beyond the idea of the traditional printed scholarly book. Anthologize forms a, perhaps implicit, critique against connotations that are an intrinsic part of the production process of a scholarly book as it is currently common in print publishing: double-blind peer review and quality control and branding by a reputable press. In this way they try to challenge or by-pass the traditional authorities that determine whether a scholarly book is fit to be published.

The New Age of the Supplement

About a decade ago there was another historian that thought about new futures for the book: Robert Darnton. Darnton is a leading expert on eighteenth-century France, a book historian who writes about electronic publishing, and the founder of Gutenberg-e, the electronic monograph series. Currently Darnton is a professor in the History department at Harvard University and the director of the Harvard University Library. In 1999 Darnton wrote the article “The New Age of the Book” published in the New York Review of Books, in which he criticizes the publishing system surrounding the scholarly monograph and opts for a different system based on the electronic publishing of books. In this article Darnton puts forward a concept of the book that again differs from that of Cohen et. al.

In the first paragraph of his article Darnton paraphrases Marshall McLuhan:

Marshall McLuhan’s future has not happened. The Web, yes; global immersion in television, certainly; media and messages everywhere, of course. But the electronic age did not drive the printed word into extinction, as McLuhan prophesied in 1962. His vision of a new mental universe held together by post-printing technology now looks dated. If it fired imaginations thirty years ago, it does not provide a map for the millennium that we are about to enter. The “Gutenberg galaxy” still exists, and “typographic man” is still reading his way around it.”

Darnton puts the printed book here in direct opposition to the web, and can in this sense be seen as part of the discourse which emphasises the gulf between the online and the book mentioned by Cohen. Darnton casually argues that the world as we know and perceive it is still build on the concept of the printed book. For Darnton a book is foremost distinguishable by its codex format. In his vision the codex is a great technology; it is a format which is great for packaging information, it is superb for storage, and thus for archiving, and remarkably resistant to damage and is therefore good to preserve. Furthermore, it misses some of the tiresome drawbacks one can attribute to electronic publications (such as charging batteries). Most importantly, Darnton states the codex is valuable in that it has been the basic tool for learning for thousands of years.

However, Darnton’s vision for the book is more versatile, as we soon will see. But by equalling the book with the codex here and highlighting the codex’s continued benefits, he seems to be catering to a certain rhetoric in this part of his article, where he refers to the continued fear that electronic publishing will cause people to do away with the traditional book:

If the future brings newspapers without news, journals without pages, and libraries without walls, what will become of the traditional book? Will electronic publishing wipe it out?”

By proposing a new future for the book, Darnton paints a picture of two visions of the book (one print and one electronic) that can exist side-by-side. Furthermore the electronic book is in his view something different, a supplement to the traditional book, not a replacement of it.

In this carefully crafted article Darnton goes on to show how this alternative concept, of the electronic book as a supplement, could even be beneficial for the scholarly book. Darnton’s push towards electronic publishing seems to be triggered essentially by two related problems in the field surrounding monograph publishing: the crisis in scholarly publishing, making it increasingly hard to get a monograph published, and the related problem of attaining tenure for young scholars, were tenure is directly coupled to the publishing of a monograph by a reputable press. In this way we could interpret this article—and the concept of the book put forward here by Darnton—foremost as a rhetorical device aimed at solving these problems.

The possibilities of electronic publishing however lead further than just saving the current print publishing model and the reputation system that is build upon it from extinction. And this is where Darnton carefully sets out his famous vision of the book as a pyramid build up of different layers of diverse data which can expand on and supplement the printed book in an online environment. The function of this electronic book is not so much to be read however, but to serve as an archive, a database, a search engine and a social text were people can interact with the text and with each other. In the final paragraph of his article Darnton sums up his strategy concerning the use of his book concept perfectly:

“Far from being utopian, the electronic monograph could meet the needs of the scholarly community at the points where its problems converge. It could provide a tool for prying problems apart and opening up a new space for the extension of learning.”

Although perhaps in practice Darnton’s vision of the book as pyramid model and Cohen’s Anthologize model seem to lie not that far apart, there are some clear differences between both visions. In Darnton’s view for instance, putting something on the web does not make something into a book. Here he gives the example of a dissertation:

Certainly, we can dump unlimited numbers of dissertations onto the Web. Several programs exist for providing this service—and it is a genuine service: it makes research available to readers. But as a rule, this kind of publication provides mainly information, not fully developed scholarship, at least not in most of the humanities and social sciences. Anyone who has read raw dissertations knows what I mean: with few exceptions, they are not books. A world of difference separates them. To become a book, a dissertation must usually be reorganized, trimmed here and expanded there, adapted to the needs of a lay reader, and rewritten from top to bottom, preferably with the help of an experienced editor.”

As Darnton states above, professional editing stays a necessity, electronic publishing is still something that needs to be done by a publisher, who provides a certain amount of authority and adds value to the publication and thus turns it into a full-fledged scholarly book.

Books as Power Tools

In both Darnton’s and Cohen’s articles the concept of the book is part of a larger strategy. Darnton wants to take away the fear concerning electronic publishing by focussing on the remarkable assets and staying power of the printed book. Cohen wants to create a tool that makes it easier for people to publish their own digital book without necessarily loosing the quality offered by professional publishers. Darnton wants to experiment with the new features online publications offer but without loosing the quality control and authority invested upon these online works by professional publishers. Cohen introduces a tool that can serve as an alternative to professional publishing. Darnton wants to heal the scholarly communication system made up of publishers and tenure committees by introducing electronic publishing. Cohen wants to subvert this same system by proposing a system that forms an alternative to the vested authority and quality provisions offered by publishers. But at the same time he doesn’t really touch upon other vested notions surrounding the book such as authorship and the stability of the text, and neither does Darnton, nor do they actively challenge the format of the book as the one being most suitable for (humanities) scholarship. Darnton’s and Cohen’s strategic concepts are also very time-bound. Darnton made a plea for electronic publishing and electronic books when the publishing industry only just began adapting to the online environment. Cohen’s et. al. Anthologize is developed in a time were electronic publishing is a must and Anthologize is one of the many tools that are being developed to encourage online humanities scholarship. Both their concepts of the book are very much part of these specific struggles. And it is not unlikely that Darnton’s vision concerning the book in the last ten years has become more like that of Cohen.

What I wanted to show by conflating these two viewpoints is that there is no such thing as a ‘book’ or an essential definition of the book. The book is a contested concept. As history has shown us a book can be a scroll as well as a codex, a paperback, a PDF or a collection of blogposts. The book is what we make of it. A book consists of possibilities; a book is becoming. As I have tried to show above, definitions and essentialist notions concerning what a book is (or should be, or was) can be seen as rhetorical devices used to argue for a specific knowledge and communication system. Visions concerning the book are being used as a means to control, shape, structure and think these systems. Consciously or unconsciously, the way we define the book, the way we work with and create the book, says a lot about the knowledge system we prefer or would like to have.

However, although I claim that there is no essential definition of the book, this doesn’t mean that in the discourse surrounding the book essentialist notions don’t play a major role. All the same, they should be seen as part of the struggle for, to put it bluntly, a remainder of the status quo, a return to the past or a turn towards another possible future of scholarly communication. Definitions of the book are power tools, books can be seen as discursive weapons to defend a virtual future both for the book and for knowledge. This becomes clear amongst others by the way definitions or essentialist notions surrounding the book often take the form of dialectical oppositions. One of the most common examples is when the book gets contrasted with the ebook. The ebook is opposed to the book as something different, were it connotes a knowledge system based on or turning toward the Internet and digital media. The need for such a distinction is quite strange if we think about it. There is no such thing as an e-song for instance, or an e-album. If we take it closer to home, there is also no such thing as an e-article (although there is an e-journal). The use of the word ebook is part of a struggle, it is a strategical tool used both by proponents and critics of ebooks to connote that here something different is happening. We can broaden this allegory to other fields were the struggle for a new system is felt the most. Think about the digital humanities and electronic literature (again: no digital biology). These dialectical stances are used to defend another notion of the humanities and another notion of literature. Interestingly enough one could argue that once these ‘other’ positions become more mainstream and accepted the additive e- mostly seems to disappear.

Essential Bookfuturism

Another use of this dialectical essentialism can be found in the term bookfuturism. Bookfuturism is a term invented by Joanne McNeill—an American science and technology writer—for a Twitter list following book aficionados. The term also shows similarities with the blog Bookfutures, written by Chris Meade, director of if:book London, a think thank for the future of the book. The term Bookfuturism was picked up and given theoretical grounding by Tim Carmody, self-proclaimed bookfuturist, Wired Gadget Lab editor and writer for various blogs on book technology and media. Carmody started a group blog called Bookfuturism and wrote “A Bookfuturist Manifesto” for The Atlantic. As Carmody explains, Bookfuturism plays with two dialectial oppositions: bookservatism and technofuturism. Carmody describes them as follows:

Now, even bookservatives acknowledge that things are changing. But they fear that these changes will result in catastrophe, for some part or whole of the culture they love. Because of that, they would prefer that book tech and book culture stop, slow down, or go back. (…) On the other side of the aisle are technofuturists. They’re winning most of the arguments these days when it comes to e-books, so their rhetoric isn’t as wild. Technofuturists are technological triumphalists, or at least quasi-utopian optimists. These are the folks who believe that technology can solve our political, educational, and cultural problems. At an extreme, they don’t care about books at all: they’re just relics of a happily closing age of paper, and we should embrace the future in the form of multimedia and the networked web.”

As Carmody rightfully proclaims however, there is no such thing as a bookservatist or a technofuturist, these are simply stances people can uptake to argue for something:

Almost nobody is a pure bookservative or technofuturist. Rather, these are rhetorical positions that anyone can take up, from moment to moment and case to case. Moreover, each is dependent on the other, because each imagines their opponent as the other. They are easy caricatures. But sometimes we ARE caricatures.”

Bookfuturists, in Carmody’s vision, refuse both positions. He sees it as a way of thinking about the book that is critical to both positions. Again here the book becomes a rhetorical device, a metaphor to think about new technology and its impact on knowledge:

We’re usually more interested in figuring out a piece of technology than either denouncing or promoting it. And we want to make every piece of tech work better. We’re tinkerers. We look to history for analogies and counter-analogies, but we know that analogies aren’t destiny. We try to look for the technological sophistication of traditional humanism and the humanist possibilities of new tech.”

Although, as I have argued above, there is no essential definition of the book—only positions—that does not mean it is not interesting to analyse the different positions people take up and the different characteristics or essential notions they assign to the book to argue for a certain knowledge system. For although the book has been a contested concept for ages (as the history of the book has shown), the specific (dialectical) positions we take in when it comes to the book at this moment, say a lot about the particular issues we are struggling with at the dawning of the digital age. How do we create a knowledge system that might in the future no longer be build upon the book (exclusively) anymore and which will perhaps mean a definitive shift away from the previously cited Gutenberg Galaxy and Typographic man?

To explore what these essential notions are that get attributed to the book by specific groups these days—for instance the stability of the printed book vs. the limitless networked book—is crucial, as it says a lot about not only the book but about our age as well. The struggle for the book is a struggle to keep up with technological change and a reaction against these upheavals. However, the discourse surrounding the book at the same time structures the way we use and adopt new technology. Media transform but they are also invented at the same time.

Furthermore, as I will argue next, it might prove essential to deconstruct these notions that we have attributed to the book to see what we actually value about them and how we can either adopt them or transform them concerning our needs and the possibility offered by digital technology. Some of the deepest essential notions that seem to stick with the book (and have been part of the discourse on the book since its conception), even in the digital age, have to do with authorship, stability and, especially in scholarly communication: authority. Fresh insights and experimental practices might be a necessity to bring these notions up to the next level and to expose and confront them to new possibilities and alternative futures. Futures in which the book is never just a book.

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3 comments on “New Visions For The Book – Part I

  1. Dan Cohen
    September 14, 2010

    Thanks for this thoughtful post—looking forward to the rest of the series. If you poke around my blog and other writing you’ll note that I’m less concerned with the book per se (though I do believe print books have a troublesome monopoly in the academic humanities) than with moving scholarly communication in general forward. My writings on books (and Anthologize, for which credit should go to the Anthologize/One Week team), to put it in terms of behavioral economics, are about confusing the signals around books (or put another way, their brand) so that other forms might become more acceptable as “scholarship.”

  2. jannekeadema1979
    September 15, 2010

    Hi Dan! Thanks for your comment. Great, love that: ‘confusing the signals around books’. Yes, I am aware I am hardly doing justice to the rest of your scholarship on and within the Digital Humanities and scholarly communication in general. I will get back to that in one of the following posts though. So stay tuned ;)

  3. Pingback: CELIC » Bookfuturism, figure de rhétorique ?

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