Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why Books Are More Than Simply Text

by Stephen J. Gertz

Full cover.

If every book tells a story, every book has a story.

Until recently, a book’s text and its physical manifestation were indivisible, their stories intertwined. With the advent of ebooks, however, text is now independent of what we’ve come to understand as a “book,” a physical object with metaphysical content that, in its origins, was presented as scrolled, later bound, manuscript, and then, with Gutenberg, as bound leaves of print.

A day cannot go by, it seems, without an article tolling the death knell of the book, either heralding a new, golden age of information delivery and consumption, or as a mournful elegy. Soon, it seems, lovers of traditional books will be consulting mediums to reach beyond the veil and communicate with beloved books in the great hereafter. We'll want to know how they're doing, tell them how much we love and miss them, and express sorrow for not defending them heartily enough when they were still with us but struggling for their lives. We need comfort and consolation.

In the absence of David Dunglas Home, the 19th century Scottish spiritualist and medium, David Pearson, Director of Libraries, Archives, and Guildhall Art Gallery at the City of London, is here to say, It’s okay.

That books have value beyond their text is not news to bibliophiles. But the argument for their essential worth as objects and historical artifacts has never been presented as comprehensively as Pearson has in Books as History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts, his 2008 book published to broad critical acclaim, and now issued in its first softcover edition, revised, updated, and enlarged.

He does so unsentimentally, recognizing that the digitalization of text will provide new opportunities for writers to organize and present the product of their pen (an inked stylus now itself a quaint artifact of bygone years) in creative ways we’ve only begun to imagine. Hand-wringers and garment renders seeking comfort and support will be disappointed; Pearson does not condemn ebooks as demon spawn.

What he does, in eight lavishly illustrated chapters - Books in History; Books Beyond Text; Individuality in Mass Production; Variety Through Ownership; Variety Through Binding; The Collective Value of Libraries; Values for the Future; and Variety Between Copies - is demolish the idea, current with the digital faithful, that physical books are passé, that they have been merely text all dressed up, now with no place to go.

Quoth Pearson the raven, Nevermore!

Books as History has two main themes. Primarily, it is about the various ways in which books can be interesting as artifacts, as objects wth individual histories and design characteristics, beyond whatever value they may have in the texts they convey. The ways in which books are made, owned, written in, mutilated and bound all add something to the documentary heritage which is central to the record of human civilisation. The second theme is around the importance of seeing this, at a time when the world of books is in flux, and the need for them is questioned as their traditional functions are increasingly undertaken by electronic media. Books may cease to be read but let us recognise that we may have other reasons to value them.”

That book lovers will adore Books as History is a given, I believe. It’s a joy to behold, read, and digest. While it is not meant to do so, it is, though, preaching to a congregation of believers, however secular and universal Pearson’s intent. 

The hard-core ebook missionary for whom it would provide a valuable, eye-opening education and perspective will not, I fear, be reading this book for pleasure or insight. When the brain goes completely binary there is little hope. Oriented to only 0's and 1's, the binary brain does not recognize the beautiful depth of diversity that 2 to infinity provides, the terrain that the physical book occupies. To appreciate books as culturally essential, historically and artistically important physical objects the binaries will have to do the math. In this regard, Books as History is Euclid’s Geometry and should be required reading before graduation from high school.

PEARSON, David. Books as History. The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts. London and New Castle, DE: The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2011. First softcover edition, revised, updated and enlarged. Tall octavo (8.75 x 9.5 inches). 208 pages. Color-illustrated throughout. $29.95.  You may order here.

Of related interest: E-Publishing Consultant Mike Shatzkin Doesn't Understand Books.

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