cooking the books 11.08.2007, 11:44 AM
posted by sebastian mary
I've been digging through old episodes of Black Books, a relatively little-known comedy series from the UK's Channel 4. The show is set in a second-hand bookshop, run by Bernard Black, a chainsmoking, alcoholic Irishman (Dylan Moran) who shuts the shop at strange hours, swears at customers and becomes enraged when people actually want to buy his books.
It started me thinking about something Nick Currie said at the second Really Modern Library meeting. We were talking about mass digitization and the apparently growing appeal of 'the original', the 'real thing'. The feel of a printed page; the smell of a first edition and so on. He mentioned a previous riff of his about 'the post-bit atom' - the one last piece of any analog cultural object that can't be digitized - and which, in an age of mass digitisation, becomes fetishized to precisely the degree that the digitized object becomes a commodity.
So Black Books struck me as (besides being horribly funny) strangely poignant. While acerbic, in many ways it's full of nostalgia for a kind of independent bookshop that's rapidly disappearing. Bernard Black would be considerably less endearing if he was my only chance of getting the book I wanted; but that in the age of Amazon and Waterstone's, he represents a post-bit atom of bibliophilia, and as such is ripe for fetishization.
Rebecca Lossin on November 9, 2007 12:50 AM:
I've been thinking about how one deals with this question of the value of physical objects in a "digital age" without lapsing into sentimentality, which is to say fetishism.
There is truly something to say for the aura of the object- the result, I think, of its physical transmission of actual molecules from one century to another. Stains on old book pages are wonderful things to think about. The circumstances of their acquisition are infinitely imaginable.
Flaws in books can be endearing. Flaws in digitized texts rarely are.
And there is the very simple fact that they inhabit the same material world as our bodies. We are never at home in technology- we can't physically achieve such a thing no matter how developed our cyborg fantasies become- and so we will always be tourists in the spaces naturally inhabited by digital surrogates. It isn't even a question of original at this point- there are few books that are singular objects and you will never get to touch those. I am not exactly sure how to quantify the value of objects and perhaps this is appealing as well.
Gary Frost on November 9, 2007 6:05 PM:
Its curious how a perturbing aspect of an aura or smell or tactile feature frequently comes up in comments about the physical book. It is as though there is a suspicion that it means something.
The basis of tactile investigation prompting assimilation of concepts is deeply embedded from evolutionary experience. Primate dexterity and distinctive right and left handed manipulation prompted both neurology and evolutionary advance of the brain. Conceptualizations were prompted by tactile investigations and arms leveraged actions. This learning path of the hands prompting the mind is exemplified by the codex book. Later cultural traits of personal possession of objects including actions of portability and display are well reflected by the codex. And book possession can also be shared across time and culture indicating the codex capacity for persistent existence and library accumulation and the physical configuring of books in classified library arrays prompts researchers to conceive latent books between and among those shelved. Conveying concepts in physical objects is not a paradox, but an embedded mechanism of learning.
But here is the interesting thing about screen reading. It also has an unsettling aura of its own. We like to watch the screen in a mild hypnosis as if we were watching a campfire. What is all that about?
The first screen was the night sky. White dots on a black field. (screens still work best in darkened environments) Patterns were imposed including omens, constellations and astrophysics, but it remains a field receptive to almost any pattern and any perceived pattern is vulnerable to a realization that it is an illusion. We want stars and pixels to be objects, but they are not objects that can be possessed, they are objects that can be watched.
What if reading combines possession and watching into a composite experience? That would be pretty fascinating! It would also begin to explain a discord with formats that feature one or the other of the component experiences.
bowerbird on November 12, 2007 12:39 PM:
humans are physical beings, so yes,
physical objects have meaning to us.
on the other hand, humans can _abstract_
from the physical out to the cognitive...
this _symbolic_representation_ is the
very essence of language, thus stories,
and thus physical books. in the beginning
was the word. the p-book is nothing more
(or less) than physical manifestation of
"the mental". people who put the p-book
above the story put cart before horse...
love of p-books is a fetish. and no, "fetish"
is not a dirty word, nor is it a bad thing...
Rebecca Lossin on November 18, 2007 10:41 PM:
Mr. Frost makes a good point about the relationship between tactile experience and the development of abstract thought and is also right to point out that reading of "p-books" (to borrow one of the more obnoxious terms I have heard lately) while a different experience than screen reading is not necessarily richer for their material characteristics. However, he fails to take into account that one does physically interact with a digital interface- through a keyboard, mouse etc. It is not yet the night sky. Technology, for the moment, is physically embodied. So one needs to ask how these new movements and gestures have changed this process of cognitive development and then how these changes might impact the intellectual production of those involved in everything from writing to programing to keyboard design.
This brings me to my second point- despite the common sense ring of "humans are physical beings, so yes, physical objects have meaning to us" the statement glosses over the important question of why this is the case and, by extension, how we construct a comparably complex meaning electronically. Not the same meaning of course, but one that takes into account the history that lead to digitized texts.
That language is an abstraction does not preclude a serious examination of the forms it takes. And to impose a variation of "e-book" on something that could only have been thought of in those terms for the last decade or so, is symptomatic of the anachronism encouraged by the present trajectory of technological development- an increasingly seamless manifestation of information whose structural components and operational mechanisms are progressing towards obscurity (to be distinguished from obsolescence.) In short, technological progress, at least in terms of the market, is measured by technology's ability to hide itself and forget, to the greatest extent possible, the historical development of that which it is hiding. What we are dealing with is not so simple as "books are material manifestations of information and so are screens." This progression is dependent on the absolute opposite of information storage and the transparency sought by catalogs and other organizational schemes, and this aspect of digital technology is a truly troubling characteristic that books do not share.
Lola on July 8, 2008 12:16 AM:
Love this show. America needs to catch up with good humor. Good to see that there are more fans of the show.