Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Hypothesis of a Book

I discovered this little story about a soon to be published book drawn from the writings of Roland Barthes after the death of his mother. What does this have to do with printed matters, precisely? Well, it’s more of an impression than an idea, but these words from the story really resonated with me and this project:

“The reader is presented not with a book completed by its author,” the volume’s annotator, Nathalie L├ęger, writes, “but the hypothesis of a book desired by him.”

The hypothesis of a book is a great phrase, and for me it’s evocative of the kinds of work that is going to be done over the next few years as we work out what it is we want most from printed books, and what we want from digital publishing. What are the elements of the book that we need to keep? What might we relinquish? The article talks about Barthes having jotted down his thoughts about his mother on little slips of paper, a free floating diary… It’s interesting to think about this in light of what we call a book, and our assumption that books must involve bound pages between covers. Barthes book about his mother’s death began life as individual pieces of paper, perhaps in part this was a by-product of the project itself. Memory and grief and emotion don’t run in long narrative streams, they’re bite sized and unpredictable. The hypothesis of a book suggests that there’s no sure way for the publisher/translator/annotator to know for sure how something experimental (and intensely personal) was supposed to wind up. Instead they look at the form, at the content, at the function and make an educated, empathetic guess. This seems like a sound way to describe what is happening around us with the range of small publishers producing journals and books.

There’s another element to this hypothesis of a book idea too. It has to do with the work done by if:book and other similar think tanks that spend serious time speculating and experimenting with the way books work in a digital society. Happily, I’ll get to do some more musing on this when I take up a 4 month fellowship in London next year (just announced today!) to research the future of the bookshop. I wonder what the hypothesis of a bookshop desired by Barthes (or anyone else, for that matter) might involve?

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