Notes on Books and Ebooks

{NOTE: On May 30, 2013, I participated in a panel discussion at Eyebeam on books and ebooks, titled “Maker and Destroyer of Books.” This is a revised version of the notes I prepared for the discussion.}

The written word was invented as a way of communicating with people who aren’t in earshot—such as god(s).

That means that books are substitute people.

Just like people, books have ways of persuading you that they’re worth spending time with, worth listening to, worth talking to. They have ways of establishing their authority and trustworthiness. Their methods aren’t as organic or spontaneous as those of real people, because they’re objects—but they’re social objects, rooted in relations and personalities.

My sense of how books work as social objects comes from my experience of editorial work—from working on making books and thinking about them in comparison to the newspaper and the magazine that I’d worked on. In the mid-2000s I was living and working in Moscow, mainly as a translator, but I also had a part-time job as a copy editor at a newspaper. After that I started doing freelance copy-editing work at a magazine and then for a book publisher. Newspapers and books have different rhythms—the paper is made for tomorrow, the book is made for a longer future—and this difference is established in ways more subtle than their obvious difference as objects—the flimsy disposability of the newspaper vs. the weighty solidity of the hardcover book. It’s expressed in little things; the Associated Press Stylebook, which we used at the newspaper, tells you to write numbers as numerals, whereas the Chicago Manual of Style, which I referred to when editing books, tells you to write them out as words. It’s a minor difference but I remember first learning about it and feeling a sense of the gravity of books. Then there’s the way that different kinds of printed matter refer to things outside themselves. The newspaper gives quotes and names sources within the story, and relies on the reader’s trust in the standards of journalism and the reputation of the newspaper to assert their veracity. The book has footnotes. The books has a bibliography. It uses references to establish its place within in a network of other books—it doesn’t just make a record of the day (so members of a society know what’s happening in it without personal contact), it lodges an assertion of truth in the firmament of culture (so people can know about it without living in the same time).

The publisher of the book is responsible for asserting the book’s authority—it places the front matter and end matter there to give a sense of the work of many people that went into the production of the book; it distributes the book and places it in the network of readers. Ebooks are distinct from books in that the manufacturer of the device (the e-reader: the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad) assumes many of the functions of the publisher, as well as the functions of the bookseller, and even the functions of the public sphere. Apple is notorious for its strict control over what can and can’t be sold in the iTunes store; Amazon wants every reader to rate every book, to participate in its work of promoting the book and asserting its value. These processes and procedures make the social objecthood of the book visible even as the physical objecthood of it diminishes, eclipsed by the e-reader. Books are substitute people, but the e-reader also becomes a substitute person: it’s a reader like me. It has a way of processing the text—reading it—so that I can read it and process it, too. Identification with the book gives way to identification with the device. (I like my Kindle Fire HD; I spend a lot of time with it. In the daytime I hold it on the subway and read Russian novels, and at night I curl up in bed with it and watch TV shows.)

This year I started on working on a series of artists’ ebooks (called Klaus_eBooks, because the publisher is Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery) and all of these thoughts about the book and the ebook went into my decisions regarding what kinds of ebooks I wanted to include in the series.

First, I should say a few things about the artist’s book. It’s not like other books. The artist abdicates claims to authority that the non-fiction hardcover (or even the novel) needs in its social life. The artist’s book abandons authority but keeps authorship; the reader (the viewer) is invited to see how the artist arranges images and text within the form of the book. The artist’s book is about the physical properties of the book—the pages, the covers, the way they organize information—in the way that a painting is about surface and pigment, or poetry is about sound and meaning.

An artist’s ebook, then, would have to address how the ebook organizes information and how that relates to the device. When the e-reader processes text it changes its size and shape, for readability; the book loses its hermetic solidity, its integrity as an object—and it loses authority, too, as authority gets leeched by the device’s maker.

I’m interested in artists’ ebooks that are less about the properties of the book or the device than about the properties of digital media. The identification with digits (rather than with a device, as in my experience with my Kindle) suggests an understanding of bodies and people not as integral wholes but as fluid, shifting, flexible entities.

What does it mean for digits to be substitute people? What would that say about people?

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