Monday, March 08, 2010

the book, is thinking about it

Yes, me again. While I'm dismantling my last computer (waiting for things to copy/trash), I'm gathering my thoughts over the next few weeks for the talk I'm giving about 'The Limits of the Book' in Mackay at Focus on Books V. Bear with me: I've had the pancakes, so I'm not too tired yet, but the braincells are still a bit shattered by my early morning.

Humorous Pictures

Ostensibly my paper starts as a run-down of the BSANZ conference I attended last year in Brisbane by the same name. I thought it would be useful to report that the scholars and the book artists are debating the same issues: what is a book, does it have limits, what is the future of the book, and does taking it online change everything?

At the Mackay conference, there is a space at the end of the conference where people get to stand up and do a little update about what they've been up to or what's been happening around the traps. Last conference I did one of those, and I sort of expected to be in the same timeslot, not being a major player (or so I thought) and not having a very big topic, just a conference report-back kinda-thing.

But OMFCC,* they've given me a 45-minute slot right smack in the centre of proceedings. I figure this gives me a chance to bang on a bit about books and what I think about them.

But first I have to really crystallise what I do think. Because I change my mind, quite a lot. In a nutshell, I think that books will survive anything the internet can throw at them. I think that books are physical objects that can't be taken on-line because then they become text. I think there is a substantial difference between books and information, which is what the internet presents to us. And I think that there are booky things on the internet, but we should all start working out new names for them, to be imaginative about new terms for new things. I like the way Kindle doesn't pretend to be anything but a Kindle. If it's a successful enough product, all e-readers will be called Kindles whether their genuine brand-names like it or not, and that's the way new names generate.

I was just reading an article from The Times Online about the (yawn) Death of Books, and pondering my favourite thought, which is: when peak oil runs out, if we haven't got our shit together with alternative energies, the internet really will be only for those who Have. If books are dead, and information is only accessible online, then we really will have Haves and Have-nots, everywhere. This is my post-apocalyptic extension of 'how does the information contained in books survive the constant shifting of software that leaves much behind and only translates what is deemed relevant?'. As someone who has worked in desktop publishing pretty much from the moment it went onto computers (I just felt a grey hair go PING), I have witnessed many incarnations of books fall by the wayside, trapped on disks, drives, sticks, all holding files that are now impenetrable. One particular project I'm still involved with (on a very sideline level) has spent the last 20 years (PING) trying to perfect a way to strip down their carefully researched and formatted scholarly editions into some holy grail of simple code that can coast along the surface of a very rough software (and hardware) ocean. I don't know how successful they've been, but it's been a long journey in a very leaky boat.

I do think about this stuff a lot; I have a recurrent daydream/nightmare (depending how busy I am) where the internet crashes and people come knocking at my studio door wanting me to handset and print the newspaper for them (PING).

I'm a big believer of books as physical objects: I have a very broad concept of what can be a book, from sculptural objects to conceptual ideas of bookiness... I can see that the computer can conceptually 'be' a book, but I'm starting to be a firm believer in the internet being a provider of information rather than a holder of books.

I also think, and I'm hoping this will go down well at a conference of artist's book makers, that we are really well placed in time to be working with books. Now that books have pretty much ceased to be the dominant provider of information and moved into a more specialised sector of the market (I really doubt that pulp novels will ever stop being made, unless people come up with a e-reader that can cope with steam and sand), there is no better time to be pushing it as a symbol, even a relic, of a time that people are or will be highly nostalgic about. Making beautiful books -- or making undervalued books valuable again by altering or reworking them -- will ensure that the physicality of books survives and is nurtured.

Any thoughts? Remember that this is me thinking aloud and completely unstructured; I'm very happy to be slapped down on any points or pulled up to the mark regarding generalisations or research. Any pointers as to places I should be looking at will be appreciated and fully acknowledged in my paper.

*Ceiling Cat being the main deity in this household, with a small subsection being a Jedi follower. I was once married to someone from the Bureau of Stats. I take the Census seriously.



ronnie said...

hi-dee ho-dee duck

as I was reading through your post it seemed that I could hear an echo (echo...echo...) of themes that have also been rattling through my brain (brain...brain....) of late.

my MFA/PhD proposal - just starting out - is actually titled 'codex infinitum - the infinite book' and so I've been thinking/making/reading things in the general direction of the future of books and knowledge in a wwwebby world.

I don't know that I'd have anything useful - or more importantly - new - to add research-wise (as I'm confident you'd have a mountain compared to my molehill) so I'll give you a potted version of a couple of my working observations (for what they may be worth)

For some years now I've been collecting sets of encyclopaedias (last count I think I've got about 50-ish sets stored in sheds here at sams creek) and these have started figuring in arty pieces - when I started collecting the sets I was surprised to discover that NO ONE (and I really do mean no one) wanted them - they usually weren't even offered for sale at charity shops or booky sales (no one wanted them - they were destined for the skip and landfill). I had ached as a kiddie for a set of encyclopaedia brittanica - and here they were headed to the tip.... such as been the rate of change in how information is now gathered, stored, utilised and updated that past treasured booky volumes of knowledge are now - well deemed mostly useless.

so yep I was nodding my head where you wrote:
"Now that books have pretty much ceased to be the dominant provider of information......there is no better time to be pushing it as a symbol, even a relic" blah blah etc.

and that is an active part of what I try to bring to works that I'm doing with old encyclopaeds.... (you may have caught up with a few bits and bobs from my blog?)

righto so that's where my brain is at arty-making-wise - the other thing I'd add here (and please forgive me if I'm going over familiar territory - or worse - sending you to sleep with mindless rambling!)

one thing I've noticed in calligraphy was that its peak in popularity (the late 1980s-early 1990s) coincided with the revolution of home computing/ desktop publishing... but before the www and wiki.... I'd be interested in finding how closely that experience is mirrored in book arts (is it just me or do book arts still seem to be growing in popularity/ visibility?)

and lastly (still awake?) - is the st johns bible project

of interest/ relevance to what you're driving at?

ahhhh geeez I'm rambling....

would love to be a fly on the wall at mackay.... sending you good vibes for a great presentation

ronnie x

Mindy said...

The main reason I will always want books is because the only things I need to read one is my eyesight, and a light source. No batteries, plugs, cables, etc etc. Of course I also have the option of learning braille if I ever need to.

The Shopping Sherpa said...

Have you, perchance, read A Gift Upon the Shore by MK Wren? (

Anonymous said...

Hi Ms Duck

All sounds pretty spot on to me and I think it will work up into quite an interesting paper. I read something recently regarding artists being attracted to once common, now obsolete processes:
... the very obsolescence of wood engraving as a commercially vialble means of reproducing drawings meant that it was at last free from the abuses and restrictions so long imposed on it and could thus be considered as a direct form of creative expression." (Walter Chamberlaine, The Thames and Hudson Manual of Wood Engraving, 1978. p46 - ANU library copy currently in my hands but will make it back on the shelf soon).

As for peak oil - well I'm of quite an apocalyptic mind myself, so if they need illustrations for that newspaper...

SCB said...

Hello Duck, there's been an interesting discussion around some of these areas on, of which I was a part until moving into the studio and losing my reliable internet connection! Might be an interesting read (not my bit so much, but lots of other lovely stuff going on in that site).

Zoe said...

Link for you Ducky, from the twitters

Ampersand Duck said...

Ronnie: that point about calligraphy is really valid and interesting. There's a parallel bible thingy happening in letterpress too, did you know? The idea being that if you build it 'extra special, they will come:

Mindy: I'm so there with you. I've just been reading a book about books (:)) that talks about how books come with their own innate history in the form of margin notes, dog-ears, and stains, and that ability to be utterly spontaneous with a text just can't be replicated yet (or ever!) with something electronic.

Pete, I wish more of you art skool dudes would let me know when you're doing excellent blogging. That's another excellent point about the wood engraving. And you're no.1 on my publishing team when the balloons fly.

Zoe: brilliant link. I so agree with him, and eagerly await the time when online peoples can actually set poetry elegantly.

I luvs you all.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you: the death of the book is being greatly exaggerated at the moment. I think there are several reasons for this.

Firstly, large corporations are making e-readers, and want to sell as many as they can as quickly as they can.

Secondly, computers, e-readers and other devices of that ilk are made from petroleum, as you say. I have no idea what they can be made out of when there is no more petroleum to be had economically.

Thirdly, these devices all run on electricity, which is itself going to have to be revolutionized as to generation and distribution. There will be supply issues there, I am sure. At least for a while.

Fouthly, books are not only a robust technology (Lord, that is an ugly phrase), they are readily available. The poor can read, if their education has been even half-way successful. The poor don't have the spare for e-goodies.

4a) Print On Demand now removes the problem hiply referred to as "flying dead trees around the world," as though the word "shipping" never referred to ships.
4b) Paper itself does not have to consist of wood-pulp. Hemp is much less difficult to render into paper. Most of the energy-requirement and pollution from paper factories comes from the need to take lignin out of wood.

Lastly, there will always be a market for beautiful objects.

I think the discussion of turning old books into art objects is tangential to the discussion, in a way - turning books into scultpure indicates that they are plentiful objects, not that this will be their main future use. (Consider engine-blocks turned into sculpture.)

Ampersand Duck said...

Oh, anonymous, I'd love you to identify yourself, because that is such a great comment. If not, I'll add you to the wisdom of Anon down the ages. Thank you.