Monday, January 24, 2011

Week 3: History of the Book

It’s not just about the printing press! The history of the book presents us with a complete, observable communications revolution. The historical record allows us to examine the whole of a vast socio-cultural, political, and economic change over a period of some three to five hundred years (depending on whose perspective you prefer). By following the developments in manuscript and print book production, tied to the changes in the technologies used to produce those texts, we can also chart the various changes in social organization, politics and economics. 
“Can books only exist in the paper-printed media? Can the text be separated from paper to be reused as a book through digital media? Is such a discussion relevant to the subject of books?”

Some key ideas to consider:
  • the history of the book
  • the end of books (!?)
  • the net_reading/writing_condition
  • What are some current views about the emergence and diffusion of media?

Was There a Reading Revolution in the New American Republic?

Professor Robert Gross explores the history and historiography of book history and reading in pre Civil War America. This lecture was originally given at the University of Toronto in the fall of 2008.


  1. Robert Coover begins “The End of Books” by asserting that the traditional novel is dead. He summarizes the main argument against the traditional narrative structure as the “tyranny of the line”. Hypertext, he claims, will free the reader from this authorial (authoritarian) control and domination. The readers, he asserts, will become co-learners and co-writers rather than passive consumers of ideas.
    These, of course, are the standard arguments in favour of hypertext fiction. But as Coover begins exploring the “rhythmic, looping” nature of hypertext fictions, he asks some very pertinent questions:

    1) How does one move through infinity without getting lost?

    2) How does one avoid the trivial? (i.e. “the garbage”)

    3) How does one judge and analyze a work that never reads the same way twice?

    4) How can hypertext fiction achieve narrative momentum without “centripetal force”?

    5) How can the conflict between the reader’s desire for closure and the text’s desire for continuance be resolved?

    These questions highlight the essential fact that hypertext and traditional novels are simply two different forms of artistic expression. It is not necessary to assume that they are mutually exclusive or that one must replace the other. It is interesting to speculate how each form could influence the other, however. Some hypertexts do exhibit more structure than others, and certainly some recent novels have incorporated more “looping”, non-linear structures. I would thus argue that traditional novels are not dead, but are simply evolving, and that hypertexts and novels will continue to coexist and change.

    It is also interesting to note that recent developments in e-reader technologies have led some people to claim that books are dead. Although e-readers may certainly replace a significant portion of printed books, this technology is designed to replicate the traditional reading experience (even to the point that some e-readers can create the sound effect of a turning page). Clearly, the reading public is not rebelling against “authoritarian” control of the text, and in fact, e-readers may foster growth in readership of these “one-way” books due to their convenience.

    The coexistence of hypertexts and traditional texts is much like the experience of walking into a credible art museum. There will be sections for classical paintings, sections for modern, expressionist works, sections for interactive installations and even performance art, etc. A person with a critical and appreciative artistic sensibility can walk through all the sections of the gallery and enjoy the experience without having to choose one form over another. Certainly a person will have preferences, but this doesn’t mean that all other forms must be excluded.

  2. “Wheat from chaff”

    This talk about Book in America, brings about the transition of the media within print to its diverse mediums and topics. The transatlantic crossover of reading habits with its Christian influence and contribution was well depicted. From Bibles and sermons, and repeated pondering of same texts – ‘the cultural choice’ of a generation; we found diversity and choice.
    The new era of reading emerged bringing with it journals, novels and newspapers creating new authors and celebrities. The only things probably common in this transition were reading habits and medium of print. The subjects and modalities changed – it wasn’t exactly the old taking new shape but newer forms emerging. The newer form of daily news created a newer culture of Coffee houses.
    Cataloguing of books can be seen as the realisation of humans on the vastness and creation of new knowledge leading to the need for organisation. In the internet era – this can be seen as the need to be linked; to keep everything organised.
    The emergence of social libraries: the need for people to get connected with the new knowledge, being current and up to date; this probably is reflected in the application of social networking such as Twitter.
    The need to separate “wheat from chaff” is still a great challenge in the online world; probably bigger than ever. Maybe here Hypertext and links can save us some time.
    When the words move from ‘print’ to the ‘digital’ – there are still some questions on its outreach and effectiveness. How far have the digital books reached the mainline of society? How affordable is this medium for the common man?

    Paul Louis