What Are Books?
by Lisa Gitelman — New York University
December 02, 2009 – 10:21
Thank you, Elizabeth and Hollis, for organizing this discussion. Your title, “Books as Screens” is a terrific provocation. It recalls for me Jacques Derrida’s idea of the future anterior: “By carrying us beyond paper,” Derrida writes, “the adventures of technology … liberate our reading for a retrospective exploration of the past resources of paper, for its previous multimedia vectors.” That is to say, the unfolding of the futurological present, with its ebooks, Nooks™, and Vooks™ makes our past—makes the printed book—appear in heightened relief, as a heterogeneous and dynamic phenomenon in need of careful study. No surprises there: The history of the book as a scholarly sub-specialization has of course flourished in this “late age of print,” if I can grab a phrase from Jay David Bolter via Ted Striphas. I should emphasize, I’m not trying to relegate the printed book to the past or to its deathbed. Printed books have been wrongly declared dead or dying so many times before that I think we can be completely confident of their survival, forever undead (see Pricilla Coit Murphy’s “Books Are Dead, Long Live Books”). What I do want to point out is that printed books have gotten so much more complicated lately, as the question, “What is a book?” in effect gets broached anew by every next ebook platform and ebook application. The ontology (that is, the “What is?” question) of printed books continually shifts and slides for me, remade again and again by all of the ways that people use printed and digital forms as well as by the ways they create, buy, and sell them. Printed books are portable: I knew that, of course, but I understand portability so much differently now that I see people on the subway reading downloads on their iPhones or their Kindles. Printed books are commodities: I knew that too, naturally, but the recent price war among Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Target has provoked my thinking about culture as a loss leader. Finally, printed books are somehow (well, duh) printed. Yet every time I come across a scanning technician’s fingers accidentally self-digitized in Google Books, it makes me wonder about the attenuated chain of individuals and instances that must bring any textual information before my eyes. This video falls back uncritically on the idea that book equals novel, but its terrific animation effects help to push the "What is?" question.