A Toy, a Tool, a Piece of Art: Sarah Haas on What a Book Can Be

"The object gives language a heft that it doesn’t have on its own."

When it came time to write my first book, the book I’m writing now, the first insurmountable problem wasn’t what to write about or how or why. The problem, the one I couldn’t find any way around but through, was how to regard a book as a thing in and of itself. Perhaps the problem was too simple to fret over, insignificant and inane. But, then again, such is often the guise of inquiries that end up being profound.

So I took a book from the shelf, which one didn’t matter; I held a book in my hands. I turned it over, back and forth, holding it tenderly but practically too, the way I’ve come to hold a book after so many years, both familiar and strange. I feel an intimate concern for the book, even as its objecthood is changing. I reach for my kindle, another inane realization: now a book can exist without a body of its own.

*

Some time in the future, it might be interesting to have to explain the five thousand or so years during which the book was a dominant technology. It’s likely that whatever future person I’ll be talking to will only be half-listening while they scroll through the feed on their phone. Just last year, the Amazon Kindle introduced a new feature to better accommodate this new, or should I say returning, scrolling trend. “New!” My device told me. “Now a book can be read as one continuous page,” a pulsing arrow pointing, simply, down.

Up until 400 BC the scroll was the only option for portable pages, as Chinese scribes wrote on reels of silk and Egyptians on lengths of papyrus. Gradually, the scroll was replaced by the codex, first by heavy wooden tablets sewn together, much like a modern day notebook, and then, in 400 AD, by illuminated manuscripts, full of hand-painted pages bound between two covers: the bare essentials of a book.

Each culture is shaped in its own way by the directions the text is read, in English from left to right, top to bottom, forging a general flow to logic, to the pattern of sight, a direction that can be yielded to, or resisted.

Text, though, is a nonessential ingredient. I have a few books without any words in them, mostly empty notebooks and picture books (still, I read them left to right, top to bottom). Back in 400 AD, the book’s technology was inseparable from text, words which were sourced by priests directly from God himself, as if to posit the divine as the source of language was to solve its mystery, too. The page became a place, the only place in which God could exist in a meaningful way.

And so the first writers of books were not authors as we think of them today but scribes, or as Stephen King writes in On Writing, “blessed stenographers taking divine dictation.” Many writers still talk about the source of their writing this way, referencing God or the muse as the source of their inspiration. Humble as this intention may be, a book written in God’s name claims a higher and often violent power when wielded by those who claim to be nearest to Him.

Back in 400 AD, those who could make such a claim were, not coincidentally, the literate few. But with the invention of the Gutenberg Press and its moveable type in 1455, the printed page would be rapidly reproduced and dispersed among the multitudes. It was only a matter of time before humanity itself would threaten God’s sole authority, a disruption of power that would not go unpunished by the church.

Beyond objecthood, the book can also exist as an exhibition space in and of itself.

In 1536, William Tyndale translated the Bible into English without explicit permission and so, in an effort to retain control, the church called his a heretical act, strangled him, and burned his body at the stake. In that instant the book became more than a book—it became a symbol.

In 1559 the church institutionalized rules of writing and reading and published its first list of forbidden books, a practice which the Vatican would continue until 1996. In 1740, South Carolina passed the Negro Act, which included a law against teaching enslaved people to read, only slightly pre-dating the Industrial Revolution when paper and print production would proliferate to the masses.

In 1933, the Nazis, who were scrambling to assert authoritarian rule amid rising tides of democracy, held public book burnings to relay their admonition of any book thought to “act subversively on our future or [that] strikes at the root of German thought, the German home, and the driving force of our people.”[1] But the symbology of books isn’t always so terrible, as when President Obama was sworn into his presidency upon Abraham Lincoln’s Bible as a way to mark the progress made since emancipation, and as a nod to the work still left to be done.

As the book’s significations expanded, so did the book as a form of art. The artistic aspect of books could be said to have begun with early illuminated manuscripts decorated with elaborate and colorful designs meant to imbue the page with an obvious immanence, legible even to legions of illiterate beholders.

But the invention of the Gutenberg Press, which was a technological advancement, confronted notions of sacred authenticity, “the technique of reproduction detaches [sic] the reproduced object from the domain of tradition … substituting a plurality of copies for a unique existence and permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation.”

By 1789, just three centuries later, the body of the book re-emerged as a palette for artistry as poet William Blake and his wife Catherine, printed, illustrated, and bound his magnum opus, Songs of Innocence and Experience. It could be said Blake established the modern genre of artist’s books, in which artists work directly with the book as tactile form.

One could consider Marcel Duchamp’s 1947 Le Surréalisme as a part of Blake’s legacy: the multimedia work made of velvet, cardboard, and several fully-formed, foam-rubber breasts with the words Prière de toucher (please touch) printed on the back cover. And although it’s more banal, the children’s board-book also marks a departure in form as publishers narrowed the line between book and toy with thicker pages, pop-up figures, and appendages meant to be fondled.

Beyond objecthood, the book can also exist as an exhibition space in and of itself, as detailed by Gwen Allen in her essay “The Artist as Bookmaker,” a study of 1965’s Aspen magazine which sought to transform the book into a three and sometimes four-dimensional space. Created by Phyllis Johnson, the project was inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s dreamt but never realized Le Livre which sought to transform “the private act of reading into a social one,” each book like a pop-up theater.[2]

By changing the book’s form, Mallarmé suggested that reading need not be an activity of absorption, but an art that can be brought to life by a reader’s interaction with the book as object.[3] Each edition of Aspen was guest edited by artists, including Andy Warhol and John Cage, and included features like the scent of incense or a song, all the contents enclosed in a parcel-like white box.

Arguably such an extension of the form broke it too (when does a book stop being a book?), but as Allen explains, it was meant to “evoke the proverbial white cube of the gallery space and functioned as a miniature traveling exhibition.”[4] In Aspen’s form, the book’s affinity with the gallery was realized and so rediscovered a nearness with the divine mystery, the gallery and the church both physical spaces meant to enable reverence.

But the book has also come to be used in much more proletarian ways, as Nicholson Baker writes about in “Books as Furniture,” an essay prompted by the proliferation of books as set props in 1990s mail-order furniture catalogs. Baker considers the book as a part of a schema of aspirational settings that are, admittedly, “a good deal neater, costlier, and more literate” than the rooms most people actually live in.

Characterizing the bookshelf and the catalog as two “affiliated regions of cultural self-display,” Baker considers the purpose of a book that’s never read or, in the case of a bookshelf, of many books that are rarely read. He considers the bookcase itself, which evolved from a closed cabinet meant to protect books, to bookshelves full of chains meant to ward of thieves, to walls inlaid with books meant to both solidify and present a person’s identity. Taking it further, Baker wonders about the library as legacy, calling “that bank of shelved time” the “afterlife.”

“Books As Furniture” was written in 1995, the same year Amazon began selling books online, and it’s likely that Baker’s thinking was under the spell of the then popular assumption that the book, and book reading, would decline in the digital age. Baker writes: “[the book’s] authority [is] eroding, its informational tax base fleeing to suburbs of impeccably edged and weeded Silicon Valley.”

Mallarmé famously described his ideal library as one in which the books came to the reader’s attention completely by chance.

As books became props, he spoke of the collective nostalgia that so often accompanies a thing before it withers into irrelevance: “Our working notion of what books look like is on the verge of becoming frozen in a brownish fantasy phase that may estrange us from, and therefore weaken our resolve to read, the books we actually own.”

But the demise he feared was not and has not been realized, not even 22 years after Baker’s essay when eBooks are readily available online. As my husband said to me recently, “I read more than I ever have, I just do it on my phone.” What happens, then, to the book when its objecthood becomes optional? Baker wondered about the phenomenon of real books being replaced by faux books—a mirror lined with artificial copies of the Canterbury Tales and a glass-topped table from Pier 1 built on nine fake literary armatures—like a totem or a shrine.

But the book’s eulogy is proving a bit premature, though it’s understandable that Baker sympathized with the publishing industry about to encounter upheaval. In 2004, three years before Amazon would introduce the Kindle eBook, Google launched Book Search, scanning the contents of major research libraries into their databases.

Thinking the move an attack on their revenue streams, publishers sued Google in Authors Guild et al. v. Google, accusing the company of violation of copyright laws. (The case was dismissed in 2013.) When the Kindle launched in 2007, it sold out in only five hours, but since then the growth of its market share has been both slow and steady, now at about 18 percent. Helped, perhaps, by the fact that eBooks are not taxable, just as paper was duty-free in Europe during much of the Industrial Revolution.[5]

While some bookstores have struggled to survive the shift to eBooks, publishers have found it easy to adjust to the new form, and they’ve attuned to Google’s place in the market, too, coming to a profit-sharing agreement with the ever-growing Book Search. And, for the writer, eBooks have provided a boon as well, or at least a previously unavailable avenue to publication, stripped of traditional barriers to entry like agents and upfront publication costs.

Or at least that’s what companies hoping to grow the new industry, like Amazon, want you to believe as they push narratives of successful self-published authors like Amanda Hocking who reported $2.5 million in sales in 2012. Less overtly told is the more common tale, that the average self-published author nets only $1,000 a year, with half earning less than $500. For readers the news is a little better: the liberation of the book from its four-cornered form coincides with the highest publication and literacy rates to date the world over, although large inequalities remain, notably between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world.

To be sure, it’s not just eBooks affecting the rise, but the Internet’s ubiquity. In “How the Internet Saved Literacy,” Maureen Farell writes, “with such a large proportion of reading and writing taking place on the Internet, literacy has changed from a solitary pursuit into a collective one”—the realization of Mallarmé’s dream finally arrived on the back of binary code.

Or at least part of Mallarmé’s dream. His conception of literature as art, which he extended to the form of the book and to its keeper, the library, depended on the accidental. Mallarmé famously described his ideal library as one in which the books came to the reader’s attention completely by chance. But in his writing, he flirted with chaos by resisting it, akin to how an atheist’s disbelief can become a form of faith.

I wonder what Mallarmé would think of the screen as book and the Internet as library, how he’d make sense of the algorithms that deliver books to a reader’s attention, seemingly at the expense of the accidental. I suppose he’d point out that those algorithms are built-in with entropy, that the formula’s efficacy, too, depends on a form of chance. Practically speaking, the result has been that popular books get pushed into the consumer’s view, making them even more popular and further consolidating the market share of the Big Five publishing houses, now at more than 80 percent.

I want to believe that a book can help one person understand another, that there might be a way to solve the problem of what to do with another’s pain, but I don’t think empathy is logically possible nor morally admirable.

But what is done with the book once it is bought? Harvard English Professor Leah Price has taken a scholarly interest in the changing relevance of the physical book, beginning when she first noticed the more “vulgar” uses of the object coming into vogue.

In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, she asks: “Is it legitimate to use a book as a paperweight, to use an encyclopedia as a doorstop, to use newspaper as toilet paper, to pad out your bookshelf with books that you’re probably never going to read?”

In her new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, Price emphasizes that readers have always used books in less than noble ways, highlighting the disparity between our high hopes of absorption and our actual, rather distracted engagement:

We compare the way we really do use digital media to the way we imagine we once used printed media, so that we take the reading of printed books to stand for all sorts of values we think we used to have, like sustained attention, linear thinking, non-instrumental appreciation. But if you just count how many pages came off of the printing press at any moment, never in any historical period have books, let alone literary works, been the majority of printed production.

In his essay, “The Best of Times,” Hugh Kenner further dispels the illusion, writing that as English paper production piqued in the 1890s and coincided with the rise of train commuting, books stopped fulfilling spiritual needs in order to address practical ones: “killing time had become the new function of reading.”[6] The notion of immersion appears like a story in a book—a figment of the imagination.

Still, Price acknowledges there has been a change in 21st-century reading, noting writer Will Self’s observation that “the fate of the novel [now] depends on whether ‘readers will voluntarily choose to disable [internet] connectivity,’” a perspective that posits connectivity as default and so depends on the act of disconnection as the prerequisite to reading a physical book. In such a schema, the symbolism of the book is analogous to a limit or a boundary that shuts out the digital world to enable absorption in a physical and imaginary one.

“Like a horse,” Price writes, “readers need blinders … The same hucksters who once peddled get-literate-quick speed-reading techniques now advertise ‘zenware’ to block us from racing through, and around, our online reading. And so the strongest ropes may remain Gutenberg’s,” the four-cornered form still the best technology to help us assert absorption’s necessary self-control.

Maybe that’s why we keep our books around, if not to read, then to signal the pleasure option of leisurely absorption, as Dan Chiasson suggests in his review of Price’s book for the New Yorker: “Take away the book and the reader, and the whole design of the [home library] starts to feel a little sad, the way a nursery feels once the baby grows up. Insert, where the reader was, a person on his device, and function becomes décor—which, Price suggests, is what books now are for many of us.”

But, as many people in the bookish community now know, there are some who believe it’s time to get rid of our books, most famously Marie Kondo, whose dictum suggests a reader keep no more than 30 books in her home at any given time. “By tidying up your books,” she says in episode 2 of her Netflix series, Tidying Up, “it will show you what kind of information is important to you in this moment.”

She turns to ask one of the writers to hold a book that he loves, absolutely. With a tattered copy of To Kill A Mockingbird in his hand, he explains the book inspired him to become a writer. He says he “cherishes” the book, and that it has helped him find his way. “Books like that are useful,” Kondo replies, “because what you are describing, that is a spark of joy.”

But for some book lovers, that scene of discarding books proved too violent to bear, as chronicled by Hannah McGreggor in her essay for Electric Literature “Liking Books is Not a Personality.” She highlights the response of Anakana Schofield, columnist for The Guardian, who wrote, in a tweet that went viral: “Do NOT listen to Marie Kondo or Konmari in relation to books. Fill your apartment & world with them. I don’t give a shite if you throw out your knickers and Tupperware but the woman is very misguided about BOOKS. Every human needs a v extensive library not clean, boring shelves.”

In addition to some xenophobic undertones flushed out by McGreggor, the tweet reacts against Kondo by upholding books as somehow holier than other objects. In another Twitter exchange chronicled by McGreggor, two users argue about what a book is, if not an ordinary object:

@brennacgray: Ok. They’re still just objects.
@MedianiteManna: Ah, no to me they are experiences. It’s like saying a trip to Paris is an object.
@brennacgray: Ok.

“In addition to marveling at the Twitter-beef-defusing skills of popular culture scholar Brenna Clarke Gray,” McGreggor writes, “let’s think about what it means to call a book an ‘experience.’ The status of the book as object is at once denied and overburdened: the physical codex is both a stand-in for the act of reading and a trophy to demonstrate that you have the correct emotional and intellectual relationship to that act.”

I agree with McGreggor; a book is not equal to experience. But I also disagree: it’s an overreach to deny a book its experiential aspects altogether. Surely a book ignites something like a form of travel in our minds, as words conjure places we have not been and experiences we have not had. Maybe it’s empathy we’re talking about, as bookish twitter has insisted amid the Black Lives Matter uprisings. A white friend of mine posted an anti-racist book list with the caption: “What to do about racism? Read: a book is the bridge upon which empathy is built.”

Desperately, I want to believe that a book can help one person understand another, that there might be a way to solve the problem of what to do with another’s pain, but I don’t think empathy is logically possible nor morally admirable. The word empathy did not arise out of a want, noble or otherwise, to share in another’s pathos, specifically their pain. It arose from the minds of early German idealists who used the word Einfühlung to describe the relation between Man and Nature, later the relationship between Man and Art.[7]

In either case, the mechanisms of the idea were masculine and thought to be the same; Empathy a projection: first a flattening, and then a thrusting upon, like a movie on a bedroom wall. The theory piqued alongside the Third Reich, not a merging but a coercion, subtle and absolute. Of course, the meaning of empathy has changed; these days it’s almost always offered with good intentions, a way to forge similarity in a world of difference. Real or imagined, advisable or not, I wonder what it is about the book’s form that lends itself so well toward empathy’s.

From the reader’s vantage, a special kind of privacy exists between the covers, like a little theater in which one’s unique prejudices can exist unhindered, intermingling with the pages. In 1930, dramatist Bertolt Brecht wrote against empathy, which he conceived of as a form of theater designed to compel the audience to subsume into a passive stupor.

In opposition, he birthed his theater of alienation, meant to defamiliarize the audience to compel their critical faculties. A book, as theater, can function either way: as some form of connective tissue, or as mode of separation. The mere acquisition of a book is not enough to create nor cure racism. Whatever promise it holds owes to some other power.

*

I am writing to you now in a room full of books, surrounded by what must be thousands of titles, a kind of decor, I suppose, but also a way of making me feel as if I’m not all alone. I live far away from people and am comforted to know that if and when I get lonely, I can open a book and find, if not a friend, than at least an other. I feel a sense of communion then, interacting with the physical book as if a body—I bend its corners, break its spine, and mark its pages.

Why can’t a book also be considered within the sphere of human relationship, and not simply as separate from it?

It’s not just that I enjoy the tangibility of the medium but that the medium is a solidity—the object gives language a heft that it doesn’t have on its own, or on a computer, or a screen. For me, the weight of a book is the representation of its more ethereal aspect, which is the relationship a book forges between the reader and the writer. Not of empathy and its mysterious and invasive feeling into, but of friendship, a relationship of respect between two distinct beings.

In his virtue ethics, Aristotle argues that a flourishing human life requires friendship, and that friendship can exist either to serve a function, i.e. as a means to an end, or more genuinely, when one cares for another for the other’s sake. In either case, a book exists as both a means and a medium through which that connection can occur.

But Aristotle’s virtue ethics did not extend beyond human relationships and, insofar as a book is a thing, it would be excluded from his philosophy. However since at least the 1970s, when environmental ethics entered the West’s philosophical scene, philosophers like John F. O’Neill had conceived of ways for non-human entities to have and maintain intrinsic value, arguing that “to hold an environmental ethic is to hold that non-human beings are not simply of value as a means to human ends.”

In order for this to be true, O’Neill asserts that the entity must meet three criteria of intrinsic value: it must be non-instrumentally valuable, capable of non-relational value, and objectively (i.e. self-evidently) valuable. So while it may be possible for something like a tree or an ecosystem to meet these standards, most household objects, like a kitchen pot, could not.

Can a book, as object, be considered intrinsically valuable? The answer is no. But why can’t a book also be considered within the sphere of human relationship, and not simply as separate from it? If art is a uniquely human creation, maybe it isn’t an object just like any other, but a unique entity that contains humanity’s multitudes.

The book as friendship may stand on unsure philosophical footing, but the idea resonates with me in precisely the kind of way a book can resonate as it’s being read, like a church bell ringing in tandem with the soul. Of course, this requires that the book be read, and this isn’t exactly the subject we’re here to consider, but a little. As one might have a friend, one might engage with a book because it is useful or pleasurable, but I mean something more when I call a book a friend, a relationship based on Aristotle’s notion of the good.

Think of it this way: two people, standing at a distance, held together by the invisible thread of mutual goodwill. But they aren’t looking at each other, but up, toward a star. They know they can’t reach it: like me, they’re fatalists. But still, they try. In Aristotle’s world, the good isn’t better or worse but aspirational, like happiness or the horizon.

This attempt at friendship requires honesty, radical honesty that cannot deny hope or despair. And so it requires reciprocity, the simultaneity of give and take. If a book is to do anything at all, you must be a friend to the book.

This room I’m in, the one that’s full of books, it’s full of lasting friendships of all shades. Some of these books are nemeses, nonetheless, I keep them if only because the antagonist is also important. Having just finished consulting my now ratty copy of The Nicomachean Ethics, I’m absentmindedly flipping through its pages, looking mostly at the marginalia, the way my handwriting has evolved in tandem with my thoughts.

It’s Aristotle that’s remained, a touchstone. Sometimes, I think these books are more honest than a friend can ever be. The pages rest open on a well-worn page: “Between friends there is no need for justice, but people who are just still need the quality of friendship; and indeed friendliness is considered to be justice in the fullest sense. It is not only a necessary thing but a splendid one.”

__________________________________

[1]Shirer, William L. Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. Simon and Schuster, 1990.
[2]Herrschend, John. The Thing The Book. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2014. Page 11.
[3]Herrschend, John. The Thing The Book. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2014. Page 14.
[4]Herrschend, John. The Thing The Book. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2014. Page 16.
[5]Kenner, Hugh. A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1988. Page 14.
[6]Kenner, Hugh. A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1988.
[7]Nowak, Magdalena. “The Complicated History of Einfühlung.” Argument:Volume 1. February 2011. Pages 301–326.

Sarah Haas
Sarah Haas
Sarah Hass's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Hub, Longreads, The Rumpus, Adroit Journal, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Entropy, Rain Taxi, and Tupelo Quarterly, among others. She has written columns for various Colorado-based publications, including Boulder Weekly, where she also freelanced as a features and arts & culture journalist.





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