Friday, 1 April 2016

Week 11: Back to the Past

For my final paper, I’m exploring the idea of format when it comes to books. The readings that I’ve done so far have really made me consider textuality beyond the book, specifically regarding the phonograph during the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century. Both the Ruberry article and a fascinating book by Lisa Gitelman, titled Scprits, Grooves, and Writing Machines, highlight the utter grip on the cultural and intellectual imaginations that the phonograph held. It’s my fascination with cultural narratives and influences on popular imaginaries that I would chose to return to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.

What really stands out to me about this period is the quickness of mainstream imagination in eschewing the traditional textuality of the book for an aural experience. The ability to “read” in bed via phonograph enthralled people. Prior to the phonograph, insufficient lighting and fire hazards made bedtime reading a rarity. Throughout his adult life, Thomas Edison received thousands of letters from diverse people about ideas for inventions and particularly applications for the phonograph. In some circles, it would appear that the traditional book would soon become passé.  Or that paper records of meetings would not longer be necessary, as aural recording would fulfill the need to archive records. And to an extent, in the early twenty-first century, the success of the audiobook and the increasingly paperless (e.g. digital) repositories for records is a reality explored at quite some length during Edison’s time.

In my time travels back to this era, I’m not sure if I’d want to say anything about the future of the book. Rather, I’d be more interested in learning more about ideas about the future, and impart how these ideas about new writing, hearing, and reading inventors impact ideas of textuality at the turn of the twentieth-century America. Perhaps the one thing that I would mention that all these ideas about the future of the reading didn’t lead to the extinction of the traditional book, but rather complemented it through different forms (such as the audiobook). Just as there was a great diversity of ideas for inventions at this time, I think that it would be important to empathize that excluding the traditional book (e.g. a format that is actually read, not heard) leads to an oversimplification of the future of the book.

Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.

Ruberry, Matthew. "Canned Literature: the Book After Edison." Book History 16 (2013): 215-45. 

Week 11: Keeping the book modern

To take an alternative approach to this week’s blog question, I thought, “wouldn’t it be nice to go back in time and say, for once, ‘You were right.’”

Although history has been full of naysayers of the future of the book (just take a look at next week’s readings, or my fellow Futurama bloggers’ posts), and those who detest “change,” we shouldn’t forget that there are those who worked hard in their time to reinvent the book (or in this case “the novel”), to break traditional boundaries, and to demonstrate that the form and content of “the book” is fluctuating.

In this case, I am speaking of the literary modernists. Specifically those writers who observed a changing society and felt that the novel ought to reflect those changes in its essential structure. Instead of holding on to the ideals of what constitute the traditional novel or book, authors such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce attempted to shape their works in a way that reflected the changes they saw in society, and even in “human consciousness,” in the modernist period.

I have always loved this statement by Woolf (2009) which highlights her view on literature, and “the book's”, ability to represent her lived experience:

“A shift in the scale – the sudden slip of masses held in position for ages – has shaken the fabric from top to bottom, alienated us from the past and made us perhaps too vividly conscious of the present. Every day we find ourselves doing, saying, or thinking things that would have been impossible to our fathers. And we feel the differences which have not been noted far more keenly than the resemblances which have been very perfectly expressed. New books lure us to read them partly in the hope that they will reflect this re-arrangement of our attitude--those scenes, thoughts, and apparently fortuitous groupings of incongruous things which impinge upon us with so keen a sense of novelty--and, as literature does, give it back into our keeping, whole and comprehended.” (p. 59-60)

While Woolf’s works retained the form of the codex, the way she structured and organized the content of her text varied greatly from her predecessors (The Waves is my absolute favourite of Woolf’s texts, in case you’re interested in taking a look for yourself). Similar statements can be made of Joyce’s modernist works, especially Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. In a book history class last year, I studied Joyce’s interest in the shape of the book. Specifically, I looked at his preoccupation with form and his attempts to manipulate and push the boundaries of the printed book. In fact, Joyce’s work in this area has been seen as a precursor to hypertext narratives (Groden, 2004). Indeed, scholarship has made a direct connection between modernist literature’s innovations in form and the capabilities of the digital text (Pressman, 2014). For the modernists, then, at least Joyce and Woolf, whose work I have looked at in some depth, the book was not just a stack of sewn and bound gatherings, but a vessel for expression and creativity, that was open to interpretation and reinvention as the need was identified.

What we have learned over the semester is that the book is in a state of flux. There is no “one” definition for what constitutes a book, and there is no one distinct format. Going back to Drucker’s (2009) “Modeling Functionality: From Codex to E-Book,” we should think about what a book does and not “what a book is” (p. 170).  For Joyce and Woolf, the book was meant to capture something of society, and in Woolf’s words “give it back […] whole and comprehended.” If part of what the book should do –or what the novel should do– is provide a view into our contemporary world, and give us tools to understand and critique it, then change is inevitable.

So, why the modernists? To say, "you had the idea," your work was meaningful, the sentiments you expressed, and the experiments you took, are still of great value today.  


This doodle on Woolf's most famous portrait spoke to me for this post.
It offers its own unique juxtaposition of media, time periods and expectations.
Retrieved from:

As a related aside, I think I would also like to tell Woolf specifically that the future of reading and writing holds so much more for women. I would tell her that, while she had the privileged position of being in control of her writing, publishing, and printing, the future of the book makes it much easier for a woman’s voice to be heard in print (or more accurately, in text). That is, of course, an over simplification. This being the case, I would then suggest maybe we continue the conversation over lunch, because, heck, if I have Woolf’s attention, I might as well monopolize on it while I can.


Drucker, J. (2009) Modeling functionality: From codex to e-book." In SpecLab: Digital aesthetics and projects in speculative computing, 165-175. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Groden, M. (2004). James Joyce’s Ulysses on the page and on the screen. In The Future of the page, edited by Peter Stoicheff and Andrew Taylor, 159-176. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Pressman, J. (2014). Digital modernism: Making it new in new media. New York: Oxford University Press.
Woolf, V. (2009). How it strikes a contemporary. In Thoughts on peace in an air raid, 53-65. London: Penguin.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Edge of Glory

If there's one thing you'll figure out pretty quickly by talking to me, it's that I love fiction. I love anything that is imaginary, made up, and with only a toe or two in the pool of reality.

The "first" novel ever written is a point that is very much up for debate and is only sort of the topic of this blog post. Western novels are already highly contested, and that's excluding half the world. I'm not going to weigh in on this argument - I'd have to do several years of research before I could claim to hold my own on the subject - but if I could go back to any point in book history, I would go back to the moment just before the first novel was written.

Once there, I would quietly start planting the idea of fiction in people's ears. I would go to whatever bar or bar equivalent they had back then and have conversations with the locals where I'd drop hints like "Have you ever thought of writing down your stories?" or "not everything has to be about facts".

I should mention that this is not just about my own selfish desire to read novels, although that is definitely part of it. I am honestly really interested in what it is that makes people invent stories and, furthermore, what makes people write them down.

If you think about it, fiction is not a straightforward idea. It reminds me of a middle school history class I was in when I learned that the concept of "zero" did not occur to people for a very long time. It's obvious to write about what has happened, and I even think it's obvious to embellish something that happened. It's less obvious to make something up completely from scratch. To dare to invent people, to write their lives and put words in their mouths - now that's bold.

There's also a kind of doublethink that is required in novel reading: a reader has to simultaneously hold in their minds the realities of the fiction world without entirely forgetting that they are sitting on the couch in their living rooms.

What's even more spectacular is how popular novels are. Like all things it depends on taste, but fiction sells. A sustained narrative that has been fabricated by someone with an overactive imagination is a magical thing. I like novels for much the same reason I assume other people do: I like things that do not adhere to the laws of the world I live in.

I'm not even talking specifically about the fantasy genre. All novels do this - they create a world. And that, to me, is the height of creativity and power.

Week 11: Chill out

My first reaction to this question was to just sigh, and figure that if I traveled back in time to say, 1400 (manuscript production is great, printing is not too far off in the future), and got around the pesky issue of my being an outspoken woman, was that I would have to tell the monks to relax, books would be around forever.

But then thinking about it more in depth, if I were to go to the height of book production, and explain to these monks that they would be confronted the printing press, where you could make multiple identical copies of a book almost instantly, they would be just as confused as if someone actually did take Ashley's suggestion, go to 1990, and then say that all the information in the world could be held in your hand.


But looking at this in even more depth, as anyone who went to the Erik Kwakkel Friends of Fisher lecture about Medieval Commercial Books remembers, book production was leaving the monastery and entering the commerical sphere in university towns already. Life for the medieval monk (in England, let's say) was secure until the Reformation.

Let me tell you, buddy, things are about to change.

But back to the Future of the Book for the medieval monk. The medieval monk's concerns, along with Saints, and The Big Guy Upstairs (e. g. God), were that their books be produced and then kept as treasures. After all, some libraries were chained, and books that were made for rich patrons took months to produce!

I would probably tell them that their biggest challenge would not be that the book would disappear, but that their conception of the book as a precious object that exists as a singular object would change. If your monastery has the only copy of, say, Peter Lombard, for miles, and other scholars come to visit you, this means that once the printing press starts making lots of copies of Peter Lombard, you no longer have something special.

I would advise them to be comfortable with being flexible in their ideas and their ideologies. This will not only help them to change when the printing press gets introduced, but also to be able to flex when the Reformation completely changes their role in society.

So maybe the monks can't relax. But I see a parallel between their situation at the dawn of the printing press, and our situation in the post-dawn of the electronic book. Flexibility is key--if we stay rigid and refuse to change, we'll break under the stress. (After a whole course on this, it seems obvious to me, but this remains the advice I would give.)

Medieval Manuscripts and the manuscript tradition petered out by 1600. Does that mean that by 2100, our print books will become oddities, and then antiquities, and then disappear? Maybe. The recent rise of art books and fine press books on the Gaspereau Press model certainly illustrates the book moving towards the "objet d'art" area, but the fact that there is still a relatively healthy industry to make pulp romances and detective novels shows that the book is far from dead.

I guess, in the end, for us, as well as the monks, I would recommend that we just RELAX, keep an open mind, and go with the flow. Some things are just so far in the future for us that we won't be able to comprehend them. Just as Brother Example Monk would not even be able to comprehend the idea of universal information held in your hand (or could he? At that time the Bible was universal information!) there is probably something looming out there that our puny 21st century mindset can't deal with. In the end, the best thing for everyone involved to do is to just accept it. Que sera sera, and just as we are still able to look at medieval manuscripts today, our books will probably still be around in some format 600 years from now. 

Week 11: Crazy about Reading

Earlier today I stumbled upon this article, via Twitter, about how in Victorian England, many doctors thought that reading novels was terribly bad for a woman’s health – to the point that it might drive her insane. Specifically, reading novels lead to moral decay and depravity, in addition to wreaking havoc on her reproductive health and nervous system. While men were ostensibly immune to such ills, fiction posed a threat to women because the weaker sex was more susceptible to its undeniable frivolity and straight-up trashiness. So even though the stronger sex could resist the havoc fiction might wreak upon mind and body, fiction itself was largely the problem.

Maybe I take things too personally as a former English major, but I feel like this isn’t the first or last time in history that fiction has gotten a bad wrap. And I definitely take offense as a modern feminist, so I guess I’d like to travel back to Victorian England and tell as many ladies as possible that reading novels is absolutely not bad for your health and can in fact be quite beneficial for one’s mental health. Indeed, I would tell those ladies and anyone else who would listen to read as much as they liked, and especially to read whatever they liked.

Throughout history there have always been books that people tell you not to read, for somewhat similar reasons. While the Victorians thought that all novels for women were at best drivel and at worst a cause of depravity, today people will still tell you that about certain books. I’d like to travel back in time to make a case for pleasure reading, including that of the guilty persuasion (as Julia brought up in a previous blog post). Overall, I share the sentiment of many fellow bloggers this week, who simply want readers in the past to know that there is a future for books and reading, and I want them to know that going forward there will still be people who try to tell you how and when and especially what you should read. I think as long as books and stories exist in some form, especially novels just because these are my personal favourite, I can be less preoccupied and anxious about the future of the physicality of books and resign myself to a happy future in which readers simply continue to read, voraciously and without the restraint or prescription of others. Regardless of the ability to time travel, it’s a message I think is important to deliver past, present, and future.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Week 11: Nothing really changes

I think I'm going to have to take a bit of a different slant on this week's question, since I'm not convinced that the time period you choose to travel to (past or future) would make much of a difference at all, other than that people after 1990 or so might relate to you a bit more.

If I had to go back, or forward, in time then, and tell people one thing about the future of the book and reading it would be this: it's not going anywhere, and it never has. Reading, or the study of abstract symbols manifested in some visible way to render ideas, has been around almost as long as we have. Sure, we've moved from cave art to complex vocabularies, and from writing on walls and buildings to writing on computer tablets. And hey, maybe one day scientists will invent a way to beam images directly into our brains, or modern languages as we know them will evolve to the point that they become unrecognizable to those of us who lived in 2016. But I still don't believe that much will have changed.

Expressing ourselves and relaying our stories is an intrinsic part of the human condition, and we will always want to be able to understand those stories, regardless of format.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Week 11: The Ideal Book of the future is also that of the past

This week’s question is both interesting and challenging. In all honesty, if I had to say one thing about the future of the book to people of the past, I would say, “Don’t fret! It really doesn’t change all that much.” Because I think that this is true, the book is still very much part of our world and in some ways, the physical book is becoming, or is at least regaining, its popularity. The “death of the book” we all feared hasn’t come to fruition. And I don’t believe it will. Even in 1955, Lester Asheim made a salient point about the future of the book. In his article, Introduction: New Problems in Plotting the Future of the Book, he states:

“The death of the book is more likely to be hastened by those who adamantly insist on retaining, for twentieth century purposes, the nineteenth-century form of the book than it is by those who are willing to examine that form for inadequacies that can be corrected” (Asheim 1955, 283).

This is essentially what we have been discussing all semester long. If we don’t adapt and we don’t embrace change, that is when the book will die. Now, in the 21st century, we simply have numerous technological inventions, or interventions, that also help us to access and read books and information. I used to wish that we would just preserve the 19th century (and earlier) book form, such as that of William Morris, and live in the same kind of idealized world as the Pre-Raphaelites did. But, in keeping with Asheim’s argument, and drawing on the point Natasha recalled in her post, when the form of reading changes so should the form of the book. Essentially, in my rose-coloured glasses flair, I would tell readers of the past that the book is what you make it; the world is our oyster!

In thinking about my paper for this course (thank you Julia and Chrissy, I have indeed opted for the William Morris: To digitize, or not to digitize route), I would travel back to London, circa 1890 when the Morris and Co. Kelmscott Press was established. I would tell Morris and his circle that the values they place on the ideal book (legibility, ornamentation/illustration, paper quality, typeface, and size) will endure in the future due to the continued scholarship on the book arts, rare books, and book history (Morris 1893). I would describe others like him who share similar philosophies—Granary Books, Anteism, Gaspereau Press—and value the material production of a book as much as its contents. 

I would be especially interested in Morris’ view of e-books, Internet archives, and digitization. On the one hand, would he praise this as a success of socialism, access for the masses? Or would he abhor modernity and progress in keeping with his “hatred of civilization” (Morris and Wilmer 2011, 381)? I would tell Morris and Co. that while we now have the capability to read books on screens, we have to employ this technology to our advantage and not become consumed in romanticizing the past—though, like I said, guilty as charged. Ultimately, it is up to us, in the present, to ensure that there continues to be a future of the book.
The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Kelmscott Press. 


Asheim, Lester. 1955. "Introduction: New Problems In Plotting The Future Of The Book". The Library Quarterly 25 (4): 281-292.

Morris, William. 1893. “The Ideal Book.” Transactions Of The Bibliographical Society 1: 179-186.

Morris, William. 1894. How I Became A Socialist. Edited with an introduction and notes by Clive Wilmer. In, News From Nowhere And Other Writings. London: Penguin, 2004.

“The Ideal Book: William Morris And The Kelmscott Press Exhibition In Buffalo, NY.” 2010. Blog. News From Anywhere: Blog Of The William Morris Society.