Bookish Media: Matthew Kirschenbaum delivers annual Fales Lecture (by Peter Tasca)

Matthew Kirschenbaum, Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland, began the annual Fales Lecture in English and American Literature by asking what seemed like, at first glance, a simple question: What is a book? The audience might have expected the answer to be relatively straightforward. Yet Professor Kirschenbaum, the author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008) and the forthcoming Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, asked again, this time re-posing the question more precisely: “What is a book nowadays, which is, to say, a contemporary trade book brought out by a major house?”

His answer, to those unfamiliar with the thinking of Digital Humanities and Media Studies, turned out to be quite surprising. First, Kirschenbaum said, a book is a format, but not a format in the bibliographical sense, not the tangible arrangement of leaves and gatherings. In the age of the computer and phone screen, a book is a format in the medial sense that media theorist and Digital Humanities professor Jonathan Sterne has described: “a code that conditions the experience of the medium and its processing protocols.”

An iPad disguised as an old, leather-bound book

Moreover, today a book is also a file, which means that it exists as a coherent digital asset stored in a repository and in the iCloud. In fact, a book is an assemblage of digital assets consisting of multiple file-types. In this sense, it is also a network, since digital assets must be arranged to interact with one another in structured and predictable ways in order to generate desired outputs like an ePub file or an InDesign document. Thus, the book we hold in our hands, rather than consist of the sine qua non of bookishness, is actually just one medium of its output, just one permutation among the many derived from an interrelated network of digital assets.

In other words, the file, rather than the page, has become the new unit of production. As John B. Thompson illustrated in The Merchants of Culture, one no longer has the option of going to press without a file on hand. For books, the ontology of representation now proceeds from the data stream rather than from the printing press. This shift has had several consequences not only for the way we think about books and consume them but also for their relationship with other media forms.

For this reason, Kirschenbaum maintained that some books can also be nodes in a transmedial storytelling network. Consequently, at the material level of their composition, production, and circulation, books share deep homologies with other media types and formats, even in fact participating in the same systems and infrastructures of distribution and consumption. Everything about the release of a Harry Potter novel, for instance, illustrates the manner in which publishers have started to treat books as media properties. In addition to the the global laydown date, a trade innovation which originated with the Potter franchise and stipulated that the book would go on sale simultaneously in worldwide markets, Kirschenbaum went on to detail not only the fleets of shipping trucks equipped with GPS making deliveries to stores from the binderies but also the high-test opaque plastic in which copies of the book were sealed and then stored in prior to release.

Although in the past there have been several books which have relied upon such transmedial networks for their effects (Kirschenbaum pointed to the “bookish media” of Tristram Shandy as well as the texts, objects, and stage performances accompanying the transmedial Uncle Tom’s Cabin for examples), Kirschenbaum cautioned the audience not to underestimate the radicalness of this new ontology of representation underpinning digital information. The materiality of modern computation differs radically from past incarnations primarily as a result of the convergence narrative.

The convergence narrative–as articulated by the likes of such diverse figures as Ithiel de Sola Pool, Friedrich Kittler, and Bill Gates–rests upon the binary symbolic representational scheme of modern computing. Because binary numbers can both be used to model the key precepts of Boolean logic and be added and subtracted in computation, they have been able to bridge content-types that have in the past been separated by unique material ontologies. A craftsman in the 19th century, for instance, would have had to cast a porcelain figurine of Uncle Tom using only a description from the novel or the physique of a stage-actor. On the other hand, the data from a live-motion capture session can be used to animate a computer generated character in a virtual cartoon, to render the three-dimensional protagonist of a video-game, and to define the proportions of a line of action figures fabricated from a digital wire frame.

This logic of convergence within the digital medium has now begun to govern the tools and technologies which produce books. We now see this media converging in a common application environment, with different kinds of files unified within a digital asset management system which are then available for re-purposing in a variety of different media formats. Moreover, only one of these different media formats happens to be a printed book in the conventional sense. Kirschenbaum suggested that bookishness is a spectrum of features and affordances which can be strategically brought into being within the wider media range and that books themselves are increasingly prepositioned in relation to other media properties comprising a franchise or a brand.

He then went on to consider the strikingly bookish example of S., a novel by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams published by Mulholland Books on October 29th, 2013 in an edition of over 200,000 copies. To read S. one must remove shrink wrap, break a seal, and slide a volume entitled Ship of Theseus from the slipcase. The “S” of the title can be found on the slipcase itself, the black letter appearing embossed and emblazoned on the cover. In other words, S. is a book within a book, but one that doubles down on its bookishness.

A page out of S.

The Ship of Theseus was purportedly written by a mysterious V.M. Straka in 1949 and translated by F.X. Caldeira. The protagonist narrating the story is only identified as “S.” Presented as a checked out and never returned library copy with yellow, weather-worn pages, the book also contains handwritten messages in its margins by two other protagonists: Eric and Jen. They have been swapping the book with one another, exchanging comments and speculations as to the author’s identity.

Yet the collaboration of television producer and filmmaker J. J. Abrams with novelist Doug Dorst makes up the story of S. just as much as this spiraling meta-fiction. Moreover, although Mulholland Books published S., they themselves did not make it. Melcher Media, a small imprint based in lower Manhattan, performed this task. As the “media” in the title implies, Melcher Media does not produce books, but, as Kirschenbaum argued, bookish media. Neither a design shop nor a publisher, Melcher outsources their design work and are contracted by publishers who need a team to focus on an individual project. Melcher develops the concepts that turn a simple story into a fully realized bookish production.

These concepts typically involve artwork, nonstandard dimensions, bindings, paper stocks, page layouts, and, particularly in the case of S., inserts. But Philadelphia’s own Headcase Design actually executed the concept designs produced by Melcher. In addition, there was a Canadian firm that carried out the color separation, paper suppliers that provided the paper stocks, and a printer in China along with a Chinese labor force some of whom performed what has been referred to in the business as “handwork.” This euphemism refers to the practice of manually placing each and every one of the inserts into each copy, one at a time and at a precise page opening.

Reading S., then, involves a suspension of disbelief. While the book fell into our hands principally because of its status as a mass-produced commodity, we must pretend that we have an original, one-of-a-kind copy. Moreover, numerous journalistic articles have detailed the technical virtuosity going into the production of S., leading Kirschenbaum to comment how the circulation of such information to industry insiders and ecstatic fans constitutes one of the defining features of bookish media. One design journal called PaperSpecs, in particular, called S. the most complex project of 2013.

For Kirschenbaum, the suspension of disbelief that S. requires constitutes the defining feature of bookishness. S., therefore, is not a book in the traditional sense. On the contrary, S. is media produced and designed to behave like a book, right down to the synthetic fabric dressing its boards. Kirschenbaum called such effects examples of Walter Ong’s “secondary materiality,” both like and unlike materiality itself, self-consciously replicating it instead. The title Ship of Theseus slyly acknowledges this aspect of the book’s production. It comes from a famous parable by Plutarch in which he asks whether a ship whose boards and beams have been entirely replaced by new timber is still the same ship. This paradigm of bookish media promises to provide entirely new avenues for reading, distributing, and thinking about books, a paradigm that ironically remains affiliated to reproducing a time-honored and tactile experience for book-lovers in the digital age.