Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What is a "Book"?

The question gets asked more and more: what is a book? People are asking it because of ereaders and people are asking it because of the increasing popularity of book arts. It's no minor question for a writer. I've never published a book, but I feel like I should put the phrase in scare quotes (I've never "published a book") and then follow it with the obvious yet incomprehensible truth that by the time I "would have" published a book what we consider a "book" will be pretty much irrelevant.

The body and soul of the book is being divided, it seems, with the book artists making much better use of the physicality of a book, and digital media, including ereaders and the internet, letting the ideas exist "free" (free of the page, free of the profits, free of even basic remuneration for the author's creative efforts...), and frankly I think most of this is wonderful: books as utilitarian object are a bit boring. Few books live up to the enraptured descriptions of the glories of reading a physical book ("the smell!" "the weight in your hands!" "the sensation of turning pages!"). The last time books were worthy of such emotion was back when they were rare: in the devotion of illuminated manuscripts or even the typographical play of Tristram Shandy. In recent history most books are just words, words, words.

Meanwhile book arts capture the emotions of being in contact with physical bookiness and heighten them, transform them into wonder. The only unmet desire I experienced when I recently visited the Jaffe Center for Book Arts was to have the words mean more. Book artists design and build gorgeous items, but too often fill them with language only one or two steps removed from "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet." It seems they don't want the words to distract people from the beauty of their design. But just as Greek Theater improved when they added an actor, just as movies improved when they added sound, books improve when they have something to say. Where has all the meaning gone?

The meaning has fallen into the same sorry singularity as the rest of us: our ideas exist, they are out there, and they are, just like us, constantly busy but never getting anything done; deprived of their physicality, they move faster and reproduce more, but their offspring are as likely to be twelve-assed mutants as anything else. "Books" can now be produced by copy-paste, which is fine, because what good is a "book" anyhow? How is it different or better than a website or blog, where you can link to all sorts of other things. And why should it be great to mash up other people's youtube videos, but stealing their lines is wrong?

The truth is, I'm writing stories that have never been written. No one has imagined the things I'm doing now. They are entirely new stories, fresh to the world, not just in their elements but in their basic conception. What's good about what I'm doing has nothing to do with my demographics or biography, and isn't based on gimmick or grotesqueries of style or abuse of the genre. What's valuable about my work is its pure invention. Where are my ideas to go?

Because ideas are the thing that's been devalued in all this. Defenders of the status quo will tell you there are "no new ideas" but that's simply not true. It reminds me of how every now and then you come across a quote from say the 1880s or so where someone argues that everything that can possibly be invented has been invented: we're done with new things! And you laugh because in hindsight it's obvious that the best was yet to come. To those who think there is nothing new under the sun, I say again: the best is yet to come.

So the book artists are doing amazing things with the physical form of the book, but the soul of the book is adrift. Today, common blogs have a better sense of their own identity than most short stories. At least blogs know what they are and where they belong and what people want from them, think of them, do with them. The same is true in book arts: the body-book expands in its certainty of itself as physical object. Will the future look like the past? Will books be rare and therefore valued, objects d'art above all, into whom someone has taken the time to inscribe truly valuable long-form ideas, complexities in prose, novels full of real developed characters and meaningful ideas? Or will language cease to be associated with the "book," which will settle in fully as a category of sculpture? And where will those long-form ideas go?

It is not comfortable to be split in two, caught in tension with no resolution in sight, but here we are. I will write in it.

No comments: