October 1, 2020

(Endless) history of the book | Babelia


The evolution of this invention that we call a book does not end with Gutenberg or the editor Aldo Manuzio. Despite the fact that many of the books that accompany us today are quite similar in design to those that Flaubert or Emilia Pardo Bazán read, this container of ideas has undergone abundant technological advances throughout history, and all of them have influenced our way of reading and writing. About these changes and the different possible perspectives for thinking about the book –as an object, as content, as an idea and as an interface– the essay tells us The expanded book. Variations, materiality and experiments (Ampersand, 2020), whose author is the American academic and poet Amaranth borsuk, a professor at the University of Washington Bothell.

Borsuk has devoted a large part of his research to reflecting on the relationship between page and screen and to putting the history of the book in contact with current art and literature. In the preface to this essay, the author makes it clear that for her the book is a technological artifact and from that perspective she decides to approach her discourse. Although she dedicates the first chapter to the book in ancient times, mentioning the Mesopotamian clay tablets on which the cuneiform writing was drawn as early as 2800 BC. C., Borsuk often jumps back and forth in time to make connections between different moments in the book’s history. This allows us to understand, for example, how closely related the digital formats of the book are to the scrolls and writing tables of the remote past. After several centuries of preponderance of the inheritance of the printed codex that emerged in the 15th century, today we read on screens making gestures similar to those of those who used papyrus scrolls in which they wrote continuously in columns. This similarity is particularly striking in English, since the noun scroll means scroll or papyrus and, at the same time, it is used daily as a verb to give a name to the horizontal or vertical scrolling on touch screens that allows us to continue reading the text that has not yet appeared before our eyes.

This conception of the book as a fluid artifact that Borsuk offers us allows us to abandon the dichotomy between the printed book and the digital media, since, due to its malleability, the book changes and has to be constantly redefined. Its mutations, the result of various variables, have favored changes in the concept of authorship over the centuries, and have contributed to other socioeconomic transformations in the publishing sector. A good example is the incunabula, which, according to the author, reflected the behavior of the market in the 15th century: the fact that more than half of the first printed books were of the sacred order facilitated religious reform and the spread of humanism. Already in the 20th century, the emergence of paperback books made it easier for middle-class readers to form their own home libraries, something that had also happened previously in the time of the printer Aldo Manuzio (1449-1515), who began to use the compact italic typeface and a smaller format, the eighth, in addition to suppressing the notes and comments, which facilitated the portability of these volumes. Borsuk reminds us that Machiavelli himself carried these types of books when he went out for a walk in the forest, according to a letter that the author of Prince wrote to a friend in 1513.

As a working experimental poet, Borsuk is particularly interested in the book as an object that lends itself to artistic inquiry. The so-called “artist’s book” has appeared in a transversal way in all the avant-garde movements of the 20th century. It can contain text and images, like a “conventional” book, but it can also be unreadable or have been transformed into sculpture.

As the main precursor of contemporary book artists, the author does not forget Stéphane Mallarmé for his posthumous work A hit of the dice will never abolish chance, a long poem published in 1897. In it, as Borsuk sums up, “the page is not a ship, but an ocean and the text, thrown on its waves, a shipwreck in the language that directs the reader’s eye over its shiny surface. ” What Mallarmé was pursuing with that book was to restore expressiveness to the texts on both the linguistic and typographic level, since the French poet perceived a “crisis of verse” in his time due to the massification of culture, something that Borsuk reminds us so much like Mallarmé himself in his essay The book as a spiritual instrument.

Borsuk’s text works as a gateway to continue going through the many meanders of this topic, hence, at the end it includes a long list of references, both bibliographic and institutional. Some authors in tune with Borsuk and translated into Spanish who are also worth mentioning are Marjorie Perloff, whose latest book, The unoriginal genius. Poetry by other means in the new century (Greylock, 2019) delves into new forms of contemporary writing, and Argentine author Belen Gache. Based in Spain, Gache develops expanded literature projects, and in her book Nomadic scriptures (Trea, 2006) inquires about non-linear writings throughout the history of literature.

The expanded book has also been the subject of exhibitions such as Hiperiment, Mundi Reader and Kosmotic, all of them held at the CCCB (Center for Contemporary Culture) of Barcelona in the last two decades. The samples explore from hypertext to new ways of reading contemporary times. Likewise, the book is one of the essential materials in the work of artists such as Alicia Martín or the Belgian Marcel Brodthaeers. The Reina Sofía Museum dedicated a retrospective to the latter, a poet before a visual artist, in 2016. Brothaeers developed his work based on his radical approach to the way of thinking books, cinema and the visual arts. In fact, to create his first artistic object in 1964 he used fifty copies of his book of poems Pense-Bête sunk in plaster. For her part, Alicia Martín deprives the book of its content and uses it as a sculptural piece in large-format installations with visual impact, such as those she exhibited in 2009 at the Casa de América in Madrid and in 2019 at the ARCO fair.

Throughout this journey, it is clear that the book, in its different variants, is today in top form; there are no reasons, therefore, to organize his funeral for him.

The expanded book. Amaranth Borsuk. Ampersand, 2020. Translation by Lucila Cordone. 298 pages.

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