People of the Book: Mara Mills

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Mara Mills, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University who engages with disability studies and new reading formats.

Mara Mills at Life’s Work: Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera, MASSMoCA, November 2013

Mara Mills at Life’s Work: Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera, MASSMoCA, November 2013

1. How do you define a “book”?

I wrote to some of my colleagues at the Library of Congress to see if they had an answer to this question, and none of them did! It’s much easier to characterize a book or reading format. Blind and other print disabled readers have long understood books to come in different forms: inkprint, embossed print, braille, and Talking Books. (A current list of accessible reading formats can be found on the website of the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.) Digital reading technologies have prompted a widespread acknowledgment of the heterogeneity of books.

Artists like Tan Lin are particularly expansive with regard to “the formats and micro-formats of reading.” His Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking is a book about paratext and meta-data; books as commodities; translation and machine reading; “ambient textuality” and “non-print forms of reading.” Among many other things, 7CV contains English and Chinese text, machine code, found photographs, scanned clothing tags, and samples from other books. It exists as a print book, an RSS feed, and a pdf available through Lulu.com; there’s also a Flash video of the first chapter. The appendix can be found on TUMBLR.

11 ancillary books have also been released by Edit Publications (University of Pennsylvania), including a critical reader, a compilation of technical documentation, and three Chinese editions. I haven’t finished reading 7CV; there may be other formats. “There is really no such thing as a book from the perspective of a reading system,” Lin says.

Continue Reading

People of the Book: Brad Pasanek

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Brad Pasanek, assistant professor at the University of Virginia, whose work questions the “mind as metaphor” through hands-on literature, app-books, and digital humanities.

1. How do you define a “book”?

Brad Pasanek. Photo by Dan Addison.

Brad Pasanek. Photo by Dan Addison.

Almost immediately, I want to turn that question back: what isn’t a book? Or refer it to the eighteenth century, where I find the term coyly defined in Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum as “a thing well known” and extensively, in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, as “a volume in which we read or write.” The other book-people interviewed here (librarians, bibliographers, etc.) will be nicer of definition, I’m sure. But in an English department the book stands as a metonym of literature and learning. And it stands metaphorically for more besides. I call to mind commonplaces from antiquity and the Middle Ages: the book of the life, the Law written in the “tables of the heart.” Galileo and Bacon encouraged the Moderns to collate bibles and the codex naturae. The face is as legible as any page; infancy is a blank slate. And so on.

Continue Reading

People of the Book: Whitney Trettien

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Whitney Trettien, Ph.D. candidate at Duke University, who schemes on a variety of projects related to old books and new media.

1. How do you define a “book”?

Whittney TrettienIn ordinary use, ‘book’ for me means ‘codex,’ a physical form in which a stack of relatively flat material is bound along one edge, and can be opened or closed. It’s a media platform. ‘E-book’, then, is a bit of a misnomer: the electronic tablet is the platform, delivering long-form (that is, “book-length”) content.

Continue Reading

People of the Book: Erika Boeckeler

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Erika Boeckeler, assistant professor at Northeastern University who specializes in the history of the alphabet.

 1. How do you define a “book”?

Erika Boeckeler sharing Shakespeare

Professor Erika Boeckeler giving a presentation on rare books at Northeastern University, 2011
(Photo Credit: Mary Knox Merrill)

If I were being pushed off a cliff and had to give an answer to this difficult question, I would probably respond with an old-school comment that books have to have pages. Anything else is a text. But we recognize many objects and non-objects as books. This definition did not become fraught only when books started flying off material pages onto digital screens;  European artists and book-makers have been pushing the envelope on the definition of books for a long time, practically since the first books were printed in the fifteenth century (prior to that, we must call the book a codex). And now that I am “reading” “books” to my infant at home, a whole new history of creative book-making and book interaction has appeared to me.  

One persistent idea I find among my undergraduate students is that books are predominantly novels. One first-year student expressed surprise at our university library, commenting that there don’t seem to be any good books set out for reading. Thinking about both the way we use books as well as the word “book” was part of her transition from using a local library to using a university library.

Continue Reading

People of the Book: Stephen Skuce

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Stephen Skuce, Program Manager for Rare Books at the MIT Archives & Special Collections. 

1. How do you define a “book”?

Stephen Skuce sharing a medieval bestiary with students at MIT

Stephen Skuce showing a bestiary to students at MIT

I’m a traditionalist. For me the word “book” conjures up a brilliant piece of technology comprising leaves of paper that usually are imprinted with words or images and meant to be arranged in a particular order. One edge of the paper is typically attached to a binding made of stiffer stuff.

E-books enter the picture if we’re discussing content more than physical form. Of course, you can read a book on a tablet, and there’s no reason not to. But that’s a “book” only in regard to its length and intellectual content. Most of the time when I talk about books my reference is to tangible objects.

2. How do you engage regularly with books, beyond reading?

Stephen Skuce showing a Book of Hours to students at MIT

Stephen Skuce showing a Book of Hours to students at MIT

I’m very lucky: as part of my job, I get to share MIT’s rare books with brilliant, highly engaged students and an astonishing faculty; this is an activity from which I always emerge with new insights. Another learning activity involves book-centered exhibits in our gallery. I monitor the physical condition of the collection and confer with a wonderful conservation staff. I’m also responsible for cataloging the rare book collection, which is more difficult than it sounds. Two copies of a book from the hand-press period may appear to be identical but often are not, and identifying the subtle differences is painstaking work. Then there are the languages: a stack of books on electricity from the 1850s will contain items in French, German, Italian, Spanish, English, and Dutch.

I’m also a collector—not a serious collector, but an obsessive one. I decided I liked Edith Wharton when I was in my twenties and, though broke, began collecting early editions of her works. She hadn’t been widely rediscovered yet, and I made some lovely finds, along with a few nice editions by other favorite authors, too.  Continue Reading

People of the Book: Cherry Williams

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Cherry Williams, Manuscripts Curator at the Lilly Library at Indiana University.

1. How do you define a “book”?

Cherry Williams, Manuscripts Curator, Lilly Library

Cherry Williams, Manuscripts Curator, Lilly Library

I define a book as the vehicle or medium which transports ideas, thoughts, information and/or images across time and space. So, my definition of a “book” could include every kind of medium and format from clay tablets to scrolls and rolls, as well as the codex. 

2. How do you engage regularly with books, beyond reading?

I engage with books all day, every day, in the course of my professional practice. As the Curator of Manuscripts, I deal with every kind of manifestation of a book in its becoming and being a finished artifact, from cuneiform tablets, to exquisite medieval codices, to handwritten and typescript drafts of contemporary poetry and literature, to artist’s books. I work with books in many different kinds and forms of physical aggregation and binding, as well as instances of materials which have become a “book” though they were never intended to be—such as elaborately bound collections of correspondence or ephemera. My work includes collection development, by buying new materials to add to the current collections, preparing materials for exhibition or exhibition loans, granting permissions for publications, and working with our conservators on questions of preservation and treatments, as well as teaching classes and providing visitors with hands-on experiences with our materials.

Probably like most of the people who will participate in this interview series, I have read voraciously throughout my life beginning at about age five, when I was told by my mother that I could get up early (around 5 a.m.!) if I sat and read quietly in the living room. My professional life in books, however, began in my first year of graduate school, when one of my instructors suggested that I visit the Special Collections Research Center on campus while seeking out a subject for a research paper proposal. As a result, I discovered medieval Books of Hours and the searching began in earnest. Since that time, in addition to self-directed study, internships, and independent studies, I have taken courses involving rare books, both in the U.S. and abroad, covering a diverse spectrum of topics from paleography to book construction and illustration to descriptive bibliography, as well as teaching graduate-level seminars on the history of the book.Continue Reading

People of the Book: Leah Price

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Leah Price, professor of English at Harvard University and frequent writer on books, old and new media.

People of the Book: Bonnie Mak

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Bonnie Mak, assistant professor at the University of Illinois and author of How the Page Matters.

1. How do you define a “book”?

Bonnie Mak

Bonnie Mak

Liberally, and also with caution. I don’t think the definition of “book” needs to be necessarily fixed to a specific material form. But it is also the case that we might use the term “book” when we actually mean “printed codex” or “handwritten scroll”—that’s where we get into trouble. Because my research deals with particular physical instantiations of text or image, I try to use terms that more precisely describe the object under discussion.

2. How do you engage regularly with books, beyond reading?

I have the privilege of teaching a graduate-level course on the history of books at the University of Illinois. It’s a delight to have the opportunity to think regularly about all kinds of technologies of writing, and I enjoy the challenge of making wax tablets relevant—for instance by comparing them with iPads or mobile phones. We also talk about music manuscripts, portolan charts, scrapbooks, and blogs, and discuss how they communicate—not only with text, image, and notation, but also with their physicality. That might include the quality of their materials—whether papyrus, parchment, paper, or computational device—or their size, shape, feel, sound, and even taste and smell.

I also routinely trip over the books that I’ve piled up on the floor around my desk. That’s a kind of engagement with books, too, isn’t it?Continue Reading

People of the Book: Debra Di Blasi

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Debra Di Blasi, Founder and Publisher of Jaded Ibis Productions.

1.  How do you define a “book”?

Photo of the simulacrum of the book titled, "Debra Di Blasi"

Photo of the simulacrum of the book titled, “Debra Di Blasi”

While a visual art student at Kansas City Art Institute in the early 1980s, I took a course in bookmaking and artists’ books. This was after I’d already studied creative writing and journalism at a state university and therefore had a narrow view of “book.” I scheduled a private tour of The Nelson-Atkins Museum’s of artist books where some of the greatest artists played with the concept of “book.” One of our tasks as art students was to be inventive, to question the “formula” for “book” as a “container” of ideas. We broke down the parts—binding, cover, page, ink, contents, size and shape—and questioned and explored their possibilities by making our own books. Once you start down that slope you inevitably arrive at the question, “Who made the old rules and why should I follow them?”

In 1998, while teaching experimental writing forms at the same art institute from which I’d graduated, I began to seriously bend the definition of “book” with the inception of The Jiri Chronicles. The 13-year “book without boundaries” project grew from one mixed media story to eventually include over 500 individual works of prose, poetry, video, audio interviews, websites, music, consumer products and, yes, physical books like The Jiri Chronicles and Other Fictions (FC2/University of Alabama Press) and two poetry collections written by the late Jiri Cech. (Cech died in 2011 when he was allegedly eaten by lions in Botswana; his body was never recovered.) Most of Jiri’s products—like his books, CDs, clothing, and perfume—are extant; others vanished into the www-dot ethersphere. The Chronicles was, I see now, my first efforts toward an experiential “book”—a serious attempt to dissolve distinctions between real life and fictive life in the same way children (used to?) play imaginary roles in a physical environment.Continue Reading

People of the Book: James Reid-Cunningham

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to James Reid-Cunningham, Deputy Director of the Boston Athenaeum.

1. How do you define a “book”?

James Reid-Cunningham at work

James Reid-Cunningham at work

Dictionary definitions are generally useless because they focus on characteristics of codex books such as “sequences of pages” held together somehow. Any webpage or magazine or restaurant menu qualifies as a book by that definition. Physical books are such subtle assemblages of information and language and beauty that it becomes difficult to explain the attraction they create in us. I’m not sure anymore what is a book or isn’t a book, but I’m also not sure that it really matters.

I always differentiate between physical books made with paper, and electronic documents in whatever format. Originally the uses of paper and digital books were very similar, but as digital technologies have transformed human communications over the last decade, paper books are declining in popularity at the same time that book art, i.e., artistic objects utilizing the book format as a means of artistic expression, is flourishing. I have no reason to believe that the displacement of paper books by e-books will lessen in the near future.

Trying to define a “book” reminds me of the judge who, when ruling on a case involving pornography, said that although he cannot define pornography, he knows it when he sees it.

Continue Reading