Maybe we watched part of the future being born. I rode last Sunday with a friend to Charlottesville, Virginia (about two hours away), where the Virginia Festival of the Book was taking place. Our quest focused on one of the festival presentations, the location of which we spent a good while searching for. There was no sign saying where to go once you got there, so you knew literary people were in charge.
Still, the presentation was well worth the drive and the hunt to find it. We finally found ourselves at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center, which we entered through a room full of old printing presses and loose type, to a room where we saw a presentation on a digital edition of a book of poetry by Mary-Sherman Willis, called Caveboy. Months ago my friend and I heard Mary-Sherman read from that book, and I was impressed enough at the time to blog about it.
To circle back around to the future, let’s consider two things, the book Caveboy and the room where we were sitting. Part of Caveboy involves scenes of young people deep in a cave painting on the walls, perhaps the first time human beings made a recording of something from their imagination.
As to the room, during the presentation we were surrounded by a half dozen small plexiglass cases on white wooden stands, and inside each was a display of tiny colorful “books”, the sort of thing that art teachers may have their students create. These miniatures were all no more than three or four inches square, and many of them consisted of a long strip of paper that folded up. Would you call those small creations books? Or would you call painting on a cave wall a book?
Maybe not, so let’s go in another direction. Caveboy has been published in two forms, one of which is the traditional paper format. Looks like a book. The other form, created by Katherine McNamara, the publisher (who was also present), uses a new technology available so far only from Apple iBook. In this form, the text of a poem can appear line by line on the “page” (a metaphor, you know, as we’re really talking about a screen). The technology also includes images and a recording of Mary-Sherman reading the poems aloud.
Would you call digital Caveboy a book? One of the speakers for this presentation was Molly Schwartzburg, a librarian for the University of Virginia, a school founded, for those of you who can appreciate true coolness, by Thomas Jefferson. Schwartzburg called the current situation regarding books a state of “chaos” and said it is not possible to clearly name what is happening.
So what is a book?
As I listened, it occurred to me that the question is actually more profound than first appears. Consider the book as we have known it since the ancient Egyptians, through Aristotle, through medieval manuscripts, through the invention of printing, and down to e-readers like the Kindle. In a deep sense, from Cleopatra to the Kindle, they are all the same—they are merely different technological ways of presenting long blocks of text. Even when images are added, whether medieval or modern, those images are still, flat, and silent.
E-books, for all the talk of whether or not they are replacing “books”, are themselves an extension of an old-fashioned technology. The digital version of Caveboy, however (along with other things on the internet) is stepping into a new world conceptually. It is using, and helping to invent, a new way of presenting information that goes beyond a reader interpreting lines of text. In the way that the viewer experiences and interacts with the information, this is a new world. It is perhaps in some ways a more passive world, but I don’t have space here for that discussion.
A much more interesting question than whether an e-reader is a book is whether the “book” as long blocks of text will survive. We are hardly going to turn our backs on the amazing possibilities of digital Caveboy, but I believe books with long blocks of text will survive. (After the presentation I was interviewed by a local TV station, and in a clip I saw later, I made that point in my ten seconds of fame.)
There are advantages to the older books. This new digital format is deeply dependent on technology. To read the digital Caveboy requires an extremely sophisticated piece of technology plus electrical power. We can still read texts from thousands of years ago, but some digital recordings are already impossible to read because the technology used to record them is outdated.
Regarding books as page after page of text, this is true too: books as long texts will survive because we will want them to. We don’t want to lose the pleasure of losing ourselves in Poe or Pasternak, or in those writers 300 years hence who can roll out the same rich scroll.