Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Reader

A few months ago I had the great pleasure of attending the one day symposium run by if:book called The Reader. For some reason this blog ate my post about it and I've only just discovered that this entry was never published. So, here it is now, a little late but no less interesting. You can check out some of the Twitter stream to get a sense of the day. Even better though, the director of if:book Australia, Simon Groth has kindly allowed me to repost his opening welcome. I thought it nicely captured the spirit of things, and the video link Simon mentions, below, offers some interesting food for thought regarding how readers search for narrative no matter what... A question I'm currently considering for my own work with Gerard Goggin on the effect of mobile media and how authors/readers/developers collaborate to create novelistic stories to be read on phones, tablets, etc.

So, read on...

Remember when electronic publishing was daggy? Stephen King tried it and had to abandon the story in progress because too many cheapskates were reading his stuff for free. Matthew Riley tried it. He sold ad space on his book. Once.

It seemed as though the whole digital publishing industry had risen and fallen. Amazon was widely ridiculed on the introduction of the first Kindle in 2007. Not only was ereading dead, so the story goes, but they were trying to capture the imagination of readers with a piece of technology that looked like a broken air conditioner vent. They were right about the latter at least.

‘No one,’ went the conventional wisdom, ‘wants to red on a twitchy little screen.’

Of course, as we now know, that statement misses the point entirely. Arguments between books and ebooks, paper and screen are the sideshow. Something bigger is going on here and it’s not about containers.

The new landscape of publishing has been described as ‘disintermediated’, in other words that authors no longer need publishers or other intermediaries to reach readers. In one sense this is true.

What we’ve seen, however, is that neither authors nor readers have not abandoned the traditional model entirely, but rather have spread out along a continuum in which author choose the level of control they wish to have in publishing their work and readers choose their level of engagement with a particular writer or work.

As digital publishing progresses, the number of strategies available to connect authors with readers has multiplied.

In the past, authors had to rely on publishers, distributors, booksellers, and so on because that was the only game in town. Readers too had to rely on this system again because it was the only game in town, at least in any significant way.

But things are changing. Web-based retailers and author services for example have opened more two-way communication with aggregated readers’ responses, which frequently find their way back to the author. And then we have blogs and social media that act as a direct unfiltered link between authors and readers.

This change has thrown a lot of traditional roles in the air.

Printers have the opportunity to work directly with authors or anybody else who wants to create printed material with a broader range of services and products in smaller print runs.

Booksellers and libraries have the opportunity to delve even deeper into community building and author events.

Publishers (and smaller publishers in particular) have the opportunity take advantage of cheaper production tools and offer a range of services to authors and readers, blurring just about every role in the old model, but in the best case maintaining the editorial input that’s critical to creating works of quality.

Authors have the opportunity for greater control over how they present their work and to engage more directly with the business and more meaningfully with readers.

And, rather than relying on critics or publicity, readers have the opportunity to form their own communities, recommending authors and titles to each other.

James Bridle said recently that books are achieving the condition of music. He was quoting, but I’m attributing it to him. Books are becoming something in the air, text and images, ideas unencumbered by the limitations of ink and paper.

This is an incredibly exciting development for readers.

This is a shift in power.

Traditional publishing relies on a small number of gatekeepers: people whose job it is to mediate what is deemed publishable and what isn’t. As Mike Shatzkin points out, today:

[Publishers are] still gatekeepers, but the gate isn’t attached to a fence or wall anymore so aspirants just walk around it.

Though I suspect the days of the corporate multinational trade publisher—at least as we know it—are numbered, I don’t think this necessarily a bad thing. Australia is lucky to have a rich diversity within its publishing industry and those who dare to reimagine their role will be in the best position to reconnect with the people who make all this possible: readers.

This is the real shift. The power wielded by the old gatekeepers is drifting further and further and towards the community.

This is everybody’s gain.

I like talking about readers, much more than talking about writers or editors or publishers or anyone else associated with books. It’s one of the reasons we have called today The Reader. All those other terms are exclusive, in part defined because of who they exclude. Reader is the one genuinely inclusive role. No matter what else you do, whether it’s in the book industry or not, whether you even read books or not, you are a reader.

In the context of authorship, we frequently refer to humans as storytelling animals. I think that’s half right. We are also story-absorbing animals. We are narrative animals. This film is pretty old, it dates from a 1944 psychological experiment by Heider and Simmel, but it illustrates the point beautifully.

In the experiment, subjects are asked simply what happened? In response, they told a story. Probably the same or similar story to the one you just concocted as you watched. Very few people see that film for what it is: shapes moving across a field.

So ingrained is our need for stories, that you might have cause to wonder about those people who don’t see a story in that film. What the hell were they watching?

We don’t just like stories, we need them. It’s a need that exists independently of any object no matter how important. It existed before the book and it may just exist after it too. Maybe. And with the need for stories comes the need for the creation of stories, the collation of stories, the preservation of stories, but above all the reading of stories.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bound Up in The Past: the Future Uses of Books

Here is a version of the paper delivered at the SHARP2011 conference in Brisbane last week - all about how old books are being reused as furniture. One thing I haven't tackled in this paper, but which I hope to consider in greater depth in a later piece is the question of *why* I think it's significant that much of this re-use of books involves domestic furniture rather than other artistic uses for books with which you might be familiar.

The idea for this paper was first sparked when, walking through Melbourne’s Federation Square one morning, I came across a designer’s market. Several stalls used vintage books as raw material: one simply sold old books wrapped as bundles with twine; another ingeniously used the mechanics of the bound book – it’s opening and closing – as means to construct concertina room dividers. The cloth bound books were stitched together in colour co-ordinated rows. A few stalls down I met a young woman who created small wall-mounted shelves from vintage books – the sort of thing you pop a vase on, not the sort of thing to hold your hardback first editions… We chatted about her work. She told me that she liked the idea of preserving old books. That, even though sometimes some books didn’t make very good reading they were so beautifully designed it would be terrible to see them destroyed. Because she specialized in home décor designs, she liked being able to take books from one person’s home and incorporate them into another. Her words made me think of what the anthropologist Arun Appadurai, calls “the social life” of things; in this case the social life of books – their life as objects rather than as strictly reading matter.

At the end of our chat I asked the designer if she was kept busy. “I have more orders than I can find books for!” she replied happily. “It’s funny,” she said, “people tell me they are getting rid of their books – they take up so much room and no one has the space – but they still want to make sure there are books in their home. They’re throwing out their [contemporary] books and I can’t find enough [vintage ones] to keep up with demand.”

Books have long been said to transform the home. Renaissance readers used their books as writing desks or the equivalent of filing cabinets, filling them with notes, lists and clippings – something I’ll return to later…

More recently, books have played a central role in ‘dressing up’ personal spaces. Nicholson Baker’s 1995 New Yorker essay, “Books as Furniture” offers a history of books used for display, inspired by his observation that mail order catalogues used books as props to help sell their wares. The books in these catalogues, Baker observes, are rarely on the shelf, but instead are always seductively open – caught in flagrante – pages marked with a pair of spectacles, a wrapper from a fancy biscuit...

Today, I want to pick up where Baker left off and think a bit further about reading, book display and books in use.

The central point in Baker’s essay is that books are an excellent ‘two-for-one’: they look good in and of themselves and also symbolise something far greater: plenty of time to read. But, book display, like books themselves are changing with the times. “Books” are now not only paper between covers; epub files; iPad apps; etc… but also shelves, lamps and more. In Baker’s essay books are figurative – not literal – furniture; a place to hang your ideas about your self, not your hat. That has changed.

As books get more mobile and more virtual, the celebration of the book as a design object is a way of manifesting and addressing cultural anxiety about technological change. But there’s more to it than this. This ‘celebration’ goes further than just preservation, but involves refabrication – emphasising the book as functional and instrumental. Books are objects not just for use but re-use. The recycling of old books can be read as a way of demonstrating their worth.

Here’s an illustrative comment from Jason Thompson, author of do-it-yourself guide Playing with Books: The Art of Upcycling, Deconstructing and Reimagining the Book:

We cannot hope to save all the books from the landfill – this is a Sisyphean task. But we can be inspired by the creativity of these artists, who reinterpret both lowly and lofty books into something more.”[1]

Recycling books is in keeping with our eco-conscious times. Books are, after all, environmentally costly products but Thompson’s point connects with something from Baker’s essay: that we are drawn to books because of the way they position us, not as consumers or even readers, but as saviours. Here’s Baker:

“The books now on our shelves become more ornamental and more precious – regardless of their intrinsic worth – by the charged, Lindisfarnean absence of the books that could have influenced or improved them…but can’t because they are lost. …These books happen to be the books we have now. They’ve made it… They’re survivors.”[2]

Thompson with his talk of ‘saving books’ from landfills echoes Baker here. In both cases, books need us and we need to take responsibility for them. In the present, our concerns for the conservation of books is both practical as well as historical. Landfills and Lindisfarne.

Thinking about this in the context of some of the recent changes in our culture – especially the shift from manufacturing to an information economy – it appears that the value (economic and cultural) we find in material things is also shifting. In his book, Shopcraft as Soul-Craft Matthew Crawford writes about the modern ‘examined life’ in an era shaped by digital technology. One of his most interesting contentions is that the consumer fantasy of disburdening ourselves of physical things – becoming what he calls ‘masters of our own stuff’ – is directly related to an anxiety about our own materiality, our embodied-ness in relation to the limitless, disembodied power of the devices in our lives.[3] So, for instance, we probably all know of people who have sent huge libraries of CDs or books to the op-shop. Crawford proposes that this is a mistake – we cannot aspire to be iPhones – but we needn’t reject the digital realm, we must simply acknowledge our materiality and the responsibility borne of it.

Crawford’s view is, I think, one that is growing in popularity and not just amongst those who are made anxious by the facility of network culture. In the 90s Michael Bracewell somewhat cynically called this the "cappuccino effect"; these days I think of it as “Sourdough culture": an interest in anything bespoke, handmade, artisanal, or local. As globalised, digital, networked society has taken root worldwide, interest in old skills and old technologies have resurfaced – often times mobilised by the easy networks of online culture.

The interest in recycling old books into new furniture is, to my mind, one more example of this new doctrine. A book with a tangible history of production and ownership bears weight – the history of its production – and in this sense is preferable to its digital counterpart. But, an ebook still maintains the advantages of virtuality – thus, it makes sense not to use material books for reading, but rather put them to overt instrumental uses.When the book is undergoing a reimagining at the hands of Amazon, Apple, and Sony turning bound books into handmade furniture ensures that we are “rescuing the survivors” without persisting with old habits out of pure nostalgia.

Recently the New York Times counselled readers that they could relax: “the printed book has been given a stay of execution” they said. All thanks to designers of the sort I had met in Fed Square – who were buying large quantities of vintage books and recycling them for art and design projects. My favourite is the improbably named Thatcher Wine. He creates bespoke libraries for New York’s elite. He covers books with fabric and paper to match tastes, colour swatches and themes. His is curious (and lucrative) work. Once, grand libraries made a virtue of their leather bound editions, now Thatcher Wine recovers them to make them less imposing, more consciously decorative and less nostalgic.

In the time remaining I want to make case for these experiments with books as something much more than a manifestation of the collector’s impulse – more than object fetishism of the book.

During the industrialisation of print publishing any use of books which did not involve ‘‘reading’’ was taken as a sign of unseriousness (book collecting is a great example of this). In her book devoted to theorising collection and seriality Susan Stewart describes this, noting how in modern culture the book “closed is an object, a set of surfaces. But opened, it seems revealed; its physical aspects give way to abstraction and a nexus of new temporalities.”[4] Yet, a book is not an either/or proposition.

As we familiarise ourselves with the idea of books in relation to apps and digital devices it is increasingly common to hear talk of “containers.” The purpose, in these distinctions is often to demonstrate that containers change but content is what really matters. Today, at least, my interest isn’t that contention, instead I want to draw your attention to that choice of word container.

Paper pages and cloth covers are containers, as are iPad apps or Kindles. Both physical and digital containers function to store, organise and present the multiplicity within a set of fixed surfaces. Sugar bowls contain granules, purses hold coins, USBs store files. A container is an object with a nexus of possibilities.

Talking of “books as containers” reminds us in the first instance of their potential function as household items. In his essay, “‘Furnished’ for Action: Renaissance Books as Furniture,” Jeffrey Todd Knight writes of how, during the Renaissance period when domestic space and resources were both scarce books were understood as items of furniture – they served as tables, writing desks, and containers. This habit correlated with a linguistic association between household furniture and mental stock. Individuals spoke of ‘furnishing their brain’ with the books that furnished their room and meant nothing metaphorical. Books were useful for the mind in ways other than reading. Here’s Knight:

“Like the walls, pots, tables, bed pillars, and other domestic objects whose significance was at once material and semiotic, books formed part of the physical environment that conditioned the intellectual environment of their users.” [5]

Creative experimentation with the book of the sort I’ve been discussing reminds me of this attitude. It proposes that contemplation of the book can involve more than ‘straight’ reading. The artist who decides to make a coffee table out of coffee table books delivers a witty riposte to the biases that have long existed which suggest that the only way to value a book is to stick your nose in it. Walter Benjamin suggested something similar in the Arcades Project when he proposed that domestic interiors are, unbeknownst to their inhabitants, a surface for reading and writing.[6]

My research is leading me towards the view that experiments with old books are flourishing not because of nostalgia, or because ebooks pose a threat but because the new reading technologies are encouraging us to re-cover older, more liberal attitudes towards book use we have forgotten about – particularly our definition of what counts as “reading.”

When Knight describes how Renaissance readers used their books he describes piles and stacks put to various uses, copies scattered around the room. He cautions that these habits would “look strange to modern eyes.” But, I want to conclude by suggesting that actually our modern eyes are adjusting to Renaissance habits. Incorporating books into domestic space beyond the bookshelf as items of furniture demonstrates how we as readers are seeing the expanded utility of text. The making functional of things normally considered readerly is a way of expanding what counts as reading – and it brings it closer to our expanded set of digital media reading habits. The iPad – which serves for reading, as well as recording, storing, and organizing information – seems to me to be an innovation with an inheritance from the highly instrumental Renaissance book.

Knight’s description of the domestic Renaissance interior seems far from alien when you consider that modern rooms are likely to be scattered with tools for reading, though in this case those tools are not printed books but laptops, cables, mobile phones and digital storage drives.

[1] Jason Thompson, Playing with Books: The Art of Upcycling, Deconstructing and Reimagining the Book (Quarry: Beverly, Mass.) 2010, p. 6.

[2] Nicholson Baker, “Books as Furniture” The Size of Thoughts (Vintage: New York) 1996, pp.196-7.

[3] Matthew Crawford, Shopcraft as Soul-Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, (Penguin: New York), 2010.

[4] Stewart, 37.

[5] Jeffrey Todd Knight, “‘Furnished’ for Action Renaissance Books as Furniture”, Book History 12 (2009), p. 51.

[6] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1999), p. 9.