stubborn necessity

August 19, 2007

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Emerging electronic media , although transformative in many ways, are not reinventing our relationship to books. As with any change in the human environment, polarizing opinions tend to dominate ways of understanding. This will obscure genuine trends, making it harder to imagine what a book in 2015 might look like. First it might be best to observe the historical book of yesterday.

Books, as a communicative form, have maintained a dominance over informational authority, dissemination of meaning, and community imagination across a global culture for centuries. The dynamism of oral historical transmission is not possible once the word is written down, but almost every other significant intellectual and relational human development is arguably attributable to the book. Religion is able to define values and right behaviors, lawmakers are able to establish precedent, merchants are able to codify national and international bartering systems, and policy makers are accountable to history. Once Averroes (nee Abul-Waleed Muhammad Ibn Rushd) reintroduced the West to Aristotle, a revolution of individuation began which we continue to work through to today.

St. Matthew from the Gospel Book of Charlemagne, c.800-10.

from St. Matthew, from the Gospel Book of Charlemagne, c.800-10.

Manuscripts were instrumental in this, yet without standardization, context and meaning could change. The first widespread re-imagining of the book occurred with Gutenberg’s movable type. (Though China achieved this with baked clay over 400 years earlier, the basic realities of Chinese script prevented common use.) The Gutenberg Galaxy as Marshall McLuhan labeled it, enabled text to be set in a way previously not possible. As more and more copies of a work were produced, identically and rapidly, paradigmatic precedents could be more quickly established. People were able to communicate more effectively, much like the initial standardized catechisms for Christians, yet more personally and frequently.

The manipulation of meaning in a written work prior to printing presses has never entirely gone away, though it was slowed for a time once editions numbered in thousands. Anxiety about losing authoritative, factual information is justified, especially in a world where entities such as Google are becoming global repositories on an unprecedented scale.

Yet this anxiety must be contextualized. The West, circa 1200a.d., did not even know what it was missing until Averrose translated Aristotle. How many books are really in the Bible? And written by whose hand? Absolute meaning is illusory, a reflection of a human need more than an accurate representation of truth. This scientific, rational age is dependant upon the assumption that facts, once discovered, are eternal. Books reflect all dimensions of human experience, and their authority is granted by a wish for it to be so. Through neglect, propagandism and selectivity, meaning is negotiated over time.

Propaganda Billboard in Iran

from Bored.com Crazy and Funny Billboards

Part of the problem with wondering about books’ future is that historically the idea of what a book is has changed. For me, today’s eBook is akin to the copying of books by monks from Charlemagne’s time until the printing press. Manuscripts would change, depending on the inclinations of the monk, his attentiveness, or even the physical degradation of the source text. Something like Wikipedia, though materially sped up, is as malleable as a handwritten manuscript.

Our imagined book is fixed in time, a static recitation of alphabetic or logographic symbols. This is a very limited definition of what a book is. For Max Ernst or Paul Eluard, a book might be a collection of collages in lieu of words. For Alexsandr Rodchenko, a book may contain coins, twine, letter pressings and glass. For Katsushika Hokusai, a book may be a printed fan, a single sheet of paper bound accordion-style, or even a tiny box of lithographs centered on a single theme. The “Museum of the Book” already exists, and even did as a concept in the time of Charlemagne, when he sought to re-establish the lineage of Roman philosophy nearly lost to Visigothic and Vandal raids.

The question then might properly be “What is the possible effect that digitalization will bring?” The primacy of books can be attributed to many factors: portability, accessibility, affordability, durability, familiarity, and readability, among others. Until digital means can approximate or replicate all of these conditions, books as physical artifacts with paper bones and inky blood will not be replaced.

Portability for electronic books is on the verge of realization, as is accessibility. Affordability? Maybe not. Durability is unlikely, considering that many manufacturers rely on either inferior craftsmanship or software updates to ensure a continual need for purchasing new equipment. Familiarity can only be established over time. A foremost concern is readability, for though the human eye will adapt to longer exposure times to electronic stimuli, it remains difficult to enjoy an electronic work for as long a time as one can a book.

Moving images will survive, though perhaps that is too young a model. Music has undergone about as many transformations as the written word, be it private amusement, communication, traveling minstrels, orchestral engagements, wax cylinders, vinyl and digital storage. Books will continue to thrive, fluidly, stubbornly, but mainly out of necessity.

Writing Cards

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Under Cover

July 7, 2007

Yesterday I was lucky enough to pay a visit to the Newberry Library. I only hope that for those of you outside of Chicago you are able to see such treasures in your lifetime. I never took advantage of the NYC Public Library the way I should have, considering the depth of their collection. In a few weeks I will traveling to England for a short trip — I am definitely going to make time for the British Library, and I will share my discoveries with all of you. The Newberry really is a bibliophiles’ paradise — if you want to see, for example, one of the earliest accurate works of anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius, you just have to ask. Or how about the Sangorski and Sutcliffe binding of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, c. 1900?

from the Newberry website

This image does no justice to their ridiculously ornate snakeskin and semi-precious stone binding, nor does it show you the peacock on the back cover, or even the beautifully marbled interior leaves…

If only I could be an eighteenth century scrivener, toiling away with my quill pen on handmade papers at my escritoire, drinking some armagnac for inspiration. Of course, in all likelihood, I may have wound up as a 14th century amanuensis to someone as …um, conflicted as Margery Kempe, forced to spend my time avoiding accusations of Lollardry. (Margery’s visions of Jesus scare me, but in many ways she’s like a 14th century version of Mary Jane Hooper’s Harper Valley P.T.A., if you know what I’m talking about.)

I’ve always had a fascination with amanuenses, actually; the idea of devoting oneself to transcribing another’s account of their life is unusual business. There’s the selfless aspect of it, the continual flexibility it requires in planning for yourself, plus the fly-on-the-wall voyeurism of following another person around for possibly years, so deeply invested you would have to be to accurately represent the whole person. You may not think you’ve read the work of an amanuensis; I would argue that The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a modern version of the form, but I digress.

So my visit to the Newberry was very inspiring; I am working on a longer post that will detail methods of book binding, but I am far away from completing that anytime soon. In the meantime, I thought I would offer a few links, as well as a gallery of some of my favorite art deco book bindings ever.

First off, if you have never heard of Boekie Wokie book store in Amsterdam, then I implore you to check out their shop. They are an artist-run bookstore for books by artists, and this is a 360° panoramic shot of the shop. All kinds of hand-bound, stitched, glued, scrapbooked, letterpressed, spiral bound, appliquéd, and burnished books are there for your perusal. Like this copy of Mrs Dead and Mrs Free by Evren Tekinoktay:

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If you’ve never beheld a book drawn from a wild range of found source materials such as ballerinas, toilet paper, sofas and printed fabrics then you just ain’t livin’.

Then there is Max Ernst, whose work continues to put me in a sublime state of awe. I recently came across a wonderful little blog post about him that I wanted to share with my readers. It’s a little older, from 2004, and it does say “Not to be introduced into the British Empire or the U.S.A.” so please, be quiet and respectful when visiting his site. I really don’t know how seriously to take that little caveat. It reminds me of one of my favorite ever warnings, courtesy Loompanics Unlimited, circa 1990: “If you are a prisoner or a Canadian, please check with local authorities before ordering any books.”

(And curses, but I discovered the Ernst post just a little too late! The most recent post on Giornale Nuovo was for a book giveaway, featuring some jaw-droppingly exquisite little volumes. Hopefully I catch number eleven! Thank you Giornale Nuovo for making the Internet that much more delightful and mysterious.)

Finally, here is the mini gallery of Art Deco book covers, which are just too wonderful to hide any longer:

Paul Bonet / Joan of Arc 1925 Paris

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Pierre Legrain / Song of Songs 1925 Paris

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Pierre Legrain / Quelques fables de la Fontaine 1928 Paris

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Pierre Legrain / Lediadé me de Flore 1925 Paris

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Rose Adler / The Back of the Music Hall 1925 Paris

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Geneviéve de Léotard / Vers et Prose 1928 Paris

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And happy 100th to Robert A. Heinlein, who passed on in 1988 but for whom a grassroots campaign is working to name a US Navy DDC Destroyer 1001, Zumwalt class, in honor of him.


Degradation of the Image

June 14, 2007

“Novelty, give us novelty, seems to be the cry, heaven and earth and the wide sea cannot obtain the forms and fancies that are here displayed . . . like the whimsies of madness.”

Henry Cole, Journal of Design vol. 1, p.74 (1849)

I am still working my way through Mechanization Takes Command by Sigfried Giedion, and it is a monster of an analysis. His book, from 1948, tries to encompass nearly every strata of civilization affected by the advent of mechanization, and remarkably he is spot on more often than off the mark. In earlier chapters he has tackled the mechanization of lock making, slaughterhouses, agriculture, home comfort, libraries, bread-making, scientific management, tools, furniture, and even devoted a chapter to incubating eggs.

His personal specialty, however, is architecture, and in particular the historical human relationship to space. After a hundred or so pages delving into rococo, high Gothic and Flanders styles, Romanesque chairs and Dutch kitchens, he is finally getting back to the focus of his argument, and it is diverting me from all kinds of work I should be doing for school.

I can remember, since my freshman year of high school when I first really thought about the Industrial Age, being obsessed with the meaning of mechanization. For me, to understand what industrialization wrought is the key to comprehending our lives today. America was always central to the global shift toward mechanization, since we obliterated whatever history pre-existed us. We simply do not live intimately with history the same way that the rest of the world does. I’ve traveled enough to feel, if only for a short while, what it is like to live side by side with history.

I am thinking of: Rotterdam’s new architectural face after war-time obliteration; the bombed out cathedral in Coventry’s city center, left in ruins as a powerful memorial; many thousands of Buddhist Wats co-existing with modern Thailand, tucked behind state of the art hospitals, in the heart of the Golden Triangle, or nestled amongst the gaudy glitter and pomp of Siam Square, Bangkok; or perhaps Luang Prabang in Laos, a UNESCO world heritage city, whose central planning and roadways have not changed for over a thousand years, except for a paved central road.

Chiang Mai, or northwestern Thailand

For me, it’s a very emotional aspect of spending time with people, while I’m visiting their homeland…growing to understand a little bit of where I am, what shaped it over time, and how my momentary companions live in it. It’s hard to explain, now that I am putting it in words, and I probably should quote bits from my travel journals, if I could find the right passages. I’ve all-too rarely felt it, so meaningfully, but in every place I’ve mentioned, the weight of history was a palpable presence — a communicative quality.

I am certain that the power of history affects me the way it does because of my parents as well. I am first generation American; my parents are Hungarian refugees who fled Soviet occupied Hungary in ’56, during the revolution. Growing up I was always aware of this, even if I was mostly silent about it, and the trips my family made to Europe in the eighties are with me still today. Berlin before the wall fell, waiting in food lines in Hungary, and seeing the tanks with manned, roof-mounted howitzers…

I have often felt as though I was born in the wrong century. Accounts of life hundreds of years ago, or looking at tintypes from the 1800s, or reading about the advent of movable type and early 16th century book fairs, all seem so real to me. Of course, growing up in Jersey just outside of NYC, it would be disingenuous to imply that I’m not thoroughly modern in my mindset, or passionate about living today. I am learning XHTML and CSS so that I can help libraries thrive now, to encourage the free flow of information to all in an equitable way, to be a web DJ after grad school, and to get my collages out there in a way that helps me connect with other artists globally. (I hope to pick up some Perl and Javascript along the way as well…)

So I continue to read Giedion, and think about what he is implying. For him, mechanization is a neutral phenomena. The crux of the 18th century societal sea change is in the mindset that encouraged a spread of mechanization to all spheres of life, the underlying cultural milieu. Our industrial age is not yet over, despite the death knell sounded by many supposed “experts” over the years. It inhabits, and shapes, our emerging information age, and historically it is quite young. So what is it, exactly, that changed all those years ago?

As a good friend of mine, Bobby, once realized, “everything is design.” Really, one morning he woke with this realization, and he hasn’t quite been the same since. He even went into newspaper design as a result, after 14 years as a bookseller, and soon he hopes to expand his professional duties. What he meant, the realization that knocked him flat on his ass, was this: from the minutiae to the grand, every aspect of our environment is designed in some way.

And he’s right. From the architecture of our language, the cut of our clothes, hair and appearance, from the streets to our airspace, to our food and water, our homes, the framework of our relationships, it’s all in some way designed. Even supposedly open public spaces are increasingly compartmentalized, parsed out to various special interests for any number of purposes: burning, clear cutting, fishing, off-roading, etc. As many recent articles have discussed, dogs are currently a massive experiment in eugenics, the playground for ambitious geneticists. No longer content to selectively cross breed as agriculturalists have done for centuries, no longer content to grow ears on the back of mice and add jellyfish genes to rabbits to make them glow, we will likely have few dogs left in a generation or two that are not in some way reshaped by human science.

Alba, the Glowing Bunny

(Alba, the glowing bunny, is a link to an article from American Scholar about the Human Genome Project)

All of this comes back to mechanization for me, and our relationship to the symbols that make up our lives. Giedion talks about the degradation of symbols, how 18th century France under Napoleon’s rule was a hotbed of modernist re-imagination. By widely disseminating an opulent, disassociated relationship to the symbols of status and statehood, Napoleon encouraged a nascent mindset that thrives today. Essentially, coincident with the rise of rationalism and the foundation of the United States, emerged widespread devaluation of natural resources and symbolic imagination. Where up until that point objects were valued for their utility and function, now the object in and of itself was valued.

Giedion’s argument is extensive and thorough, and I can hardly touch upon the details here. The main point is that, with a shift from valuing the material used to fabricate goods to valuing the goods themselves, we completely reorganized our mental and physical relationships with each other and our environs. We began to ignore the connection between ourselves and what is external to our immediate senses, by willfully placing our own system of understanding before any shared relationships. This is how we came to use stopwatches to break down the work day into discrete motions by assembly line employees with scientific management. This is how Harold Edgerton was able to capture the movement of a bullet through a playing card, or an apple. This is why the nude descended the staircase. Like mechanization, a potentially neutral shift, but one with unavoidable consequences if left unexamined.

In the first generation or two, several movements emerged to counterbalance this shift, such as Henry Cole’s reformists, but … time marches on.

“We have left no imprint of our age either on our dwellings, on our gardens, or on anything else…we have culled something from every century but our own…we live off fragments.”

Alfred de Musset, 1836.

Un Semaine de Bonte, First Book

I have a love affair with Max Ernst, I must admit. Siegfried Giedion uses a lot of artwork to supplement his points, and I really appreciate that approach. He focuses a lot on collage, and especially my idol, Max Ernst. When I was 16 years old I came across a copy of Un Semaine de Bonte, one of his collage novels. It struck me like a thunderbolt, and each year as I get older I feel like it grows with me, continually nudging me a little further toward understanding my age, and my contemporary brethren. I am only now starting to appreciate what the dadaists and surrealists were really exposing, what Aleksandr Rodchenkho, Dziga Vertov and their fellow artists in Russia were unconsciously making sense of. I opened up Un Semaine de Bonte today, after a few years absence, and right on the first “day” of the novel is a lion, staring at Napoleon. I feel like Giedion is gently whispering to me, as he lifts my head and my eyes, tying a loose string across my heart…

“You will not be able to take joy in the world until you feel the ocean flowing in your veins, until you clothe yourself with the heavens and crown yourself with the stars, and see yourself as the sole heir of the whole world — and more than that, for there are people living on it who, like you, are the sole heirs.”

Thomas Traherne Centuries of Meditation (1638-1674)