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.
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.