Review of The Book by Amaranth Borsuk
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA: 2018
344 pp., illus. 21 b&w. Paper, $15.95
This book is the perfect illustration of what MIT’s “Essential Knowledge” series claims to offer: “accessible, concise, beautifully produced books on topics of current interest.” Amaranth Borsuk, who combines the expertise and sensibility of a scholar and a book artist, has written a book that provides the reader with a both technically precise and perfectly readable synthesis of our current knowledge on the book, while organizing and structuring this information from a specific point of view that helps find answers to the countless changes of the book in the digital era.
In examining the countless forms and functions of the book Borsuk does not follow a chronological or geographical order, although time and space are key issues throughout the whole study: Borsuk convincingly shows that it is impossible to study the book by focusing on just one type of book (for example the traditional Western codex) or highlighting one specific period (for instance the recent shift from print to digital), but that a well-balanced view of the book necessarily implies a broad look of non-Western cultures and non-contemporary changes and concerns. It is thanks to this broader perspective that it becomes possible to develop a new vision of the book, not just as an object, but as object, content, idea and interface – as the four chapters of Borsuk’s study are called.
In the chapter on the book as an object, the author examines the various material forms a book has taken, from the Mesopotamian clay tablets to today’s e-readers (which are tablets as well, although of course not the same). Yet Borsuk does not only foreground the material diversity. Besides using the extreme diversity of the book’s materiality to refute the impression that we are losing the book or that there is no longer any future of the book, Borsuk brilliantly demonstrates what is at stake when we study the material aspects of the book, namely the permanent interaction between the cultural and material context in which books are being made (for we use the materials at hand, and these materials are not always the same) as well as mutual influence of form and content (for the way we write is determined by the affordances of the type of book we use, while at the same time we are always looking for the best possible book form and format for what we want to do when we write).
In the chapter on the book as content, Borsuk discusses the creative tension between host medium (the “empty” container, so to speak) and information (which is always a highly material issue, as shown by the sometimes problematic negotiations between typography and meaning: for some the ideal book is a crystal goblet, the invisible flask of a precious liquid; for others, it is vital to foreground its material properties in order to show the transformative power of the book).
In the chapter on the book as idea, Borsuk gives an excellent close-reading of the major experiments that have challenged our commonsense ideas of what a book should be: William Blake’s attempts to hybridize word and image, Stéphane Mallarmé’s almost mystic craving, for instance in A Roll of the Dice, for a book that might become a spiritual instrument; Ed Ruscha’s exploration of the cheap book as an alternative to the gallery or museum exhibition; Raymond Queneau’s procedural play with the possibilities of interactive books and “choose your own book” models; the transformation of the book in a 3D-installation as in the work by Alyson Knowles; and other examples of book art which Borsuk frames in the larger context of the reflection on the book as a tool that permanently changes while also keeping its essential features (a portable instrument of structured information and thus a device of productive thinking and communicating).
In the chapter on the book as interface, Borsuk provides us with a great overview picture of the impact of the digital turn. She stresses the specific affordances of the digital host medium, underscoring the new ways of producing and organizing information and rightly giving a lot of attention to aspects that exceed the narrow materiality of these operations, such as for instance the blurring of boundaries between text and commentary, that is, more broadly speaking, between author and audience, the shifting attitudes toward copyright as well as the increasing conflict between traditional forms of legitimization (by specialized agents such as publishers and critics) and new forms of legitimization (by audience participation or by commercial logarithms, which can both give cultural and symbolic prestige to books that are no longer dependent on the decisions of traditional gatekeepers).
Since Borsuk does not address the book as a purely formal or historical object, but as a cultural practice in the sense of Raymond Williams, it is important to stress the general point the author is defending. This point is double: it has to do with diversity, forms and functions alike, but it has also to do with unity. The title of the book, which accentuates the singular (“the book”, not “books”) while stripping it from all further specifications (“the book”, instead of “the book throughout history”, “the invention of the book”, “beyond the book”, etc.), is almost a manifesto. Borsuk clearly shows that the extreme diversity of books does not mean that the type of book we most automatically associate with the notion of book (the codex of the Gutenberg era) is a cultural form that is about to be superseded by other forms. She frequently underlines the structural symmetries between the many types of books she studies – and in that sense the analogies (of object, content, idea and interface) between the non-codex books of the past or nonwestern cultures and those of the Gutenberg era help understand that there is no reason to fear that the books of the future will open a nonbook paradigm. In addition, she no less systematically draws our attention to the historical coexistence of various types of books, whose diversity can never be reduced to the simple dialectics of old and new media. There is never just one type of book that is being used, and the power of “the” book is to enable endless creative combinations of all kind of books, regardless or, more precisely, thanks to the formal and functional multiplicity of this basic human tool.