Books of the 21st Century

Monday, October 27, 2014
Submitted by Gary Frost

eReadersThe making of printed books has continued quietly across each turn of each century since the fifteenth …except for one. With the turn of the twenty-first century a sudden displacement has taken place. Thereafter books need not be something somewhere; books could be effervescent, appearing and disappearing, on a screen display. The text is scrolled over the screen, displacing text paging. Another way of considering this sudden bibliographical significance is that prior to the twenty-first century almost all books were not produced digitally and following the turn of the century almost all books were.

To accommodate this new bibliographic circumstance some descriptive adjustments for book definition are needed. The trilogy of surface derived from papermaking, image derived from printing, and commodity derived from bookbinding needs further augmentation. The surface can be distinguished as paper or screen, liquid crystal diode and electrophori e-ink can be added to image display and the commodity can be distinguished as either codex or electronic devices. It is also important to accommodate the audio or recorded book type. This book has also crossed the digital divide and remains a distinctive, functional and popular book transmission format.

So what stance should 21st-century bibliographers take today? Perhaps book scholars and advocates should transcend hollow binaries and focus on the composite resilience of book transmission. This will require study across many disciplines including book history, current book technology and commerce, cognitive science of reading, library science, book arts and literary studies. There is also need for a distinctive focus on the composite of all these to confirm the resilience of book transmission.

Book History

The 21st-century bibliographer of resilience in book transmission can turn to the exemplar of the King James Bible. The KJB was extracted out of languages of Antiquity and then re-projected in translations to modern languages. An even livelier resilience of this book is presented by the contentions over its canonic state with the endless transactions of venerators and modernizers.[i] This is a magnificent bible book story and a demonstration of the resilience of the book in society and a suggestion of the nature of its persistence. Millions of copies of the KJB sell are produced every year.

If you look you can extract a binary here. That would be stability vs. resilience. So let’s look exactly between the two, where various landscapes converge. These are vistas of the role of books in society and the device of the book at work to conduct and deviate human behavior. There is also the mostly invisible work to produce books and the interplay of divine copy and compositor error. A fascinating aspect of the book production diorama is the strange capacity of printing to create and then authorize error. Errors of inverted, omitted, transposed and otherwise re-arrayed letters were visibly fixed in the printing. The advent of a fixed word somehow created an authenticity of error. Such an artifice of error is one anomaly or even one instigator of the resilience of the book.

It is another anomaly of the King James Bible is that it is the most produced and least read English language book, and any attentive readers are likely to be Christians. A further dilution of its efficacy is a modern veneration as literature rather than scripture.

Meanwhile, technological and commercial determinists favor their own influences on books. Those interested in cultural and social influences have different perspective. Feral seminarians and cross-disciplinarians favor a third perspective of resilience of book transmission and imagine a fluctuating influence of deterministic factors.[ii]

Technologic and commercial influence dominated in 17th-century book transmission. Here we observe cultural genres such as the Hispanic romance or English theater production manipulated, reformatted and transmitted by book production and distribution agencies. Authors were rather trivial in this context and book commodities were determined by printing processes and commercial interests. This production situation is described by Roger Chartier.[iii]

A similar situation of technical and commercial dominance is also apparent today with the advent of digital book technologies and on-line enterprise. Cultural and social influences will soon follow and may come to dominate book transmission as they did during the literacy and authorship eras following the 17th century. Feral seminarians look at the fluctuations of deterministic factors and the enduring resilience of book transmission overall. There is the possibility of continual interplay of all determinants oscillating through history.

Cognitive Science

The umwelt is a cognitive and sensory capacity to assemble and organized a perceptual field of one’s surroundings. The umwelt construct is species specific but is needed by all organisms to survive. Of particular human interest is the role of an embedded umwelt construct in conflict with statistical, scientific and computer generated constructs as apparent in 21st-century taxonomic fields of natural history.[iv]

The classic natural history umwelt association is with the perceived world of living organisms and long evolved strategies from hunting and gathering. At first, such a natural world umvelt intersected emerging scientific views without displacement, and intuitions of Linnaeus and then Darwin were advanced based on intuitive constructs. However, evolutionary change and subsequent statistical DNA coding and cladistics analysis could not be and never were realized in an intuitive ordering of living organisms. A displacement of the evolved perceptual capacity by scientific construct then occurred and traditional umwelt intuition of living orders was discredited.

This umwelt precept can convey to bibliographic studies. The codex itself now suggests a narrative of conflict inherent in digital humanities. A separate cognitive capacity and neurological region is dedicated to constructs of the inanimate world and it accommodates artifacts, too. Curiously, this cognitive capacity is not ordered by living behaviors or appearances but by artifact function. So tools, hammer stones, projectile points, power drills and iPads are ordered according to what they can do. Such a culturally influenced perceptual capacity is not as likely to be displaced as technology and scientific advances.

However, it can also be suspected that deeper embedded perceptual constructs align with species evolution and, so, influence our appreciation of artifact function. At that interface, the possibility of a longer refined and adapted function of the codex may find comparative cognitive capacity of higher efficiency among later formats of book display. Such conjecture would call on influence of brain lateralization, haptic navigation and pattern recognition as optimized by the codex.

Library Science

OCLC research into configurations for co-operative “last copy” book collection of a shared monographic repository verges on another precept of the type specimen long established in taxonomy of living organisms. Is local copy redundancy – the analogue version of connectivity and universal access – now invalidated?

Convergence of organism type specimen and residual monograph title exemplar may arise from comparable entropies of diversity. Mass die-off and extinction threatens the bionic world while an equivalent dissolve of bibliographic entity dismantles and displaces previous access systems and displaces use of monographic print, as search algorithms see only phrases or words. Another shared displacement is apparent with discredit of previous intuitive classification methods. A general displacement of intuitive humanist construct is apparent in classification of both the living and book worlds.

Such humanist displacement can be superficially attributed to a “digital revolution.” A larger displacement may be at work between intuitive perceptions and commuter analysis and scientific study. More likely still could be a more intensive interplay of differing perceptual methods. Associated conflict and ambiguity would also account for interest in composites such as “digital humanities” and cross-disciplinary study in general.

The ITHAKA S+R Brief paper Designing a New Academic Library from Scratch offers no news for librarians. Librarians reinvent their services everyday. More disconcerting is the possibility that new feral behaviors, easily germinated in the library, will collapse the infrastructure of the university somewhat prematurely.

All perspectives concur that transition is underway. Hybrid services and hybrid collection resources are over-obvious and few imagine that the current situation is stable. A one-way transition from one stable state to another stable situation is imagined, but the plateaus are debatable, and the prospect of a fulfilled – even resilient and persistent – hybrid mix is also possible. We are somewhere inside a sequence of changes.

Finally, what is the risk of disappearance of some print titles? Perhaps that fear distracts from another more real one, the impracticality of active preservation of screen monographs, either published or library-produced. Perhaps we should not worry over warehouse devaluation of the print book and should instead advocate for fulfillment of the dual functionality and interdependence of paper and screen books. We need to navigate safely across the transitions in motion.

Current Technology and Commerce

After 14 years, the 47 stores of Archiver’s scrapbook supplies has closed. They join the many other sudden tent foldings of the short-lived paper scrapbook craze. This industry was based on high profit, paper conversion products. Industrial, hand-made scrapbooking was a short interlude between the long history of commonplace book repository and household economies of heirloom making and the new economies and formats of social media. The industry veneration of preservation and archival materials was rather shallow, and the endless adulation of family history is over. Or will these commercial prompts pop up again?

One outcome is the “personalized” photo book. The self-published photo book is not homemade but mass-produced as an entirely new sector of book production. The future of the jet printing of full color is represented by services such as blurb.[v] These products, created by previous scrapbook and photo album markets and other self-publishing markets are the new commonplace books.

From an even wider perspective, screen display of books is an app. From that frame, the evident adoption curve of the e-book has assumed an expected profile. So far it is a bell. Other factors of a book app adoption are at work, as well. The print book has such an established market place and user familiarity that momentum of the legacy product overcame resistance to a new screen simulation product. Most adoption obstacles were dissolved by this familiarity. Books are in the same class as keyboards…everyone assumed that keyboard prompting was inherent in the transition from paper to screen texting. There was, and still is, an innocent compliance with keyboards including the inept QWERTY array. The same innocence has been in place with the print to e-book transition.

Will the bell curve of e-book adoption be fulfilled? As such, that can be anticipated. Both research practices as well as the marketplace indicate a smooth decline of the classical notion and adoption of the screen book simulation of the paper book. Meanwhile the resilience of book transmission overall continues its long and invigorating delivery innovations.

Perhaps the era of the screen mime of the paper book is ending and the advent of the native e-books is dawning. Reading habits have already adapted to scrolling and touch text manipulations. The codex may again be more synonymous as the dedicated black reading device useful in daylight and known for long battery life.

Book Arts and Literary Studies

Let’s consider the lap of textual manipulations and processing bridging over to literary study, where we find some suggestive aspects of word processing. How has that innocent compliance infiltrated all authorship so invisibly? You can find an excellent synopsis of this topic of word processing as literary creativity and composition in the van der Weel book. [vi]

Transition to screen text processing mirrors verbal/visual text manipulations in book arts, where we saw the language/writing connection come across the bionic evolutionary divide into cultural evolution and right into the cultural roles for digital books. Recall also the profile of writing, both textual and pictorial, as a graphic art and its fabrication into book formats as a design discipline under the flag of book arts. This was well demonstrated by the designed making of a recent MIT Press book.[vii]

At the moment, on the bridge between book arts and literary study, we can reflect on news from historical book studies at the beginning of the feral seminar. This was the news item concerning the commodification of the presence in print of the literary works of William Shakespeare. That achievement of early 17th-century editorial authoring and print production dynamics occurred after the passing of William who had spent his life creating, directing and producing events of London theater among players and audiences. We also noted the continuing role of the early print Folios as bibliographers of the turn of the 20th century built synthetic versions of Shakespearian works and then the deconstruction of these by later book study scholars in a turn toward material concerns of media history. Now we land back in the lap of literary studies. So many somersaults!

Here in literary studies we can also finally confront the cyborg. This is a good moment to consider how the hybrids of database and narrative “literatures” work together and apart. The cyborg topic can be approached with the three I’s of intersection, interplay and interdependence in mind. Here also our old favorite of keyboard prompting as the talisman of person/machine mediation pops up. Take a look at Doug Wilson’s Linotype: The Film and you will see how keyboard prompting opened up the communication arts. You will also learn how the Linotype tells us as much about the future as about the past; there are unintended allures and consequences in cyborg relations.

We are now transitioning from the template of keyboard prompting to touch navigation. Remember the haptic legacy? We now enter a touching communication with the cloud, database servers and search algorithms. This is a humanist moment and a current topic in literary studies.

As for codex reading itself, that may be displaced by screen reading within some portion of a millennium. Evidence for such an extended displacement is described by Roger Chartier who points to the long twilight of mutual redefinition and composite innovation between manuscript and print. That interaction has more than five hundred years duration and only now looks threatened. An end of the interplay of manuscript and print could result with children who can no longer write by hand or read handwriting.

Extrapolation conveys to codex and screen reading. This pair is just beginning a long and innovative interaction of mutual redefinition and complementary use. Perhaps eventual displacement of the older format can occur but it is not apparent yet, and mutual innovations are only beginning to emerge. Perhaps displacement may eventually occur as a surprise and for strange reasons. A likely cause could be mutation of bionic literacy.

In The Author’s Hand and the Printer’s Mind Roger Chartier provides a whole section in Part II on “What is a Book?” This multi-facet discussion is not to be confused with the essay “What is a Book?” by Chartier and Stallybrass, in the Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship.[viii] If there is any overlap, it would be the use of Shakespeare and Cervantes to reference the ambivalences presented overall.

The ambivalences arise among contrasting views that books exist both in material forms and in reading practices of literary content. This ambivalence brews a “tension” that is also in accord with David Kastan, who sees the ambiguity in a “pragmatic” and “platonic” state of the book.

Would it take anything away from the elegant and logical precepts of such masters of bibliographic scholarship to suggest there is a third response to the question of what is a book? This third thing would be the tension existing between binaries and the ambivalence itself. Here we would encounter the resilience of book transmission. A fabulous resilience is there, as Andrew Piper suggests.[ix]

Lambros Malafouris, in his book How Things Shape the Mind, has built the infrastructure that needs only a little bridge to cross from cognitive archeology to cognitive bibliography.[x]  Here is the resilient construct to better engage the eerie resilience of book transmission: “…[M]inds and things are continuous and inter-definable processes rather than isolated and independent entities.”

A noetic field is at work with actions molding behavior and things, such as books, acting and behaving beyond the body. Our three I’s of intersection, interplay and interdependence sustain the ambivalent state of the mind and body and thing composite. “Strangely enough, the realm of material engagement can be thought of as one of the most familiar existential territories that we humans come to know and, at the same time, as an unknown existential territory.”

Here also is the little bridge to comparative media studies[xi] (MET meets CMS) where the shadows of counting tokens and drawn lines and diachronic notches and alphabets are at play. It is no wonder that books are so resilient; they are resilience embodied.


[i] This whole diorama is wonderfully depicted by Gordon Campbell in his book; Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611 – 2011, Oxford Press, 2010.

[ii] There is a printed report of the fall 2013 seminar; “Resilience of Book Transmission” (contact the author for a free copy):

[iii] Chartier, Roger, The Author’s Hand and the Printer’s Mind, 2014.

[iv]Yoon, Carol Kaesuk, Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science, 2009.


[vi] van der Weel, Adriaan, Changing our Textual Minds: Toward a Digital Order of Knowledge, Manchester, 2011.

[vii] Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, Presner, and Schnapp, Digital_Humanities, MIT Press, 2012.

[viii] Fraistat, Neil, Flanders, Julia, The Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship, Cambridge University press, 2013.

[ix] Piper, Andrew, Book Was There, University of Chicago, 2012.

[x] Malafouris, Lambros, How Things Shape the Mind, a theory of material engagement, MIT, 2013.

[xi] Hayles, Katherine and Pressman, Jessica, Comparative Media Studies, transforming the humanities in the post-print era, Minnesota, 2013.