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What Shall We Want to Have Called a "Book"?
Sharon Helgason Gallagher

Excerpt from the Keynote delivered by ARTBOOK | D.A.P. President and Publisher Sharon Helgason Gallagher at the 2012 BOOKLIVE Conference, June 8, 2012, London South Bank University

What Shall We Want to Have Called a "Book"?
Moby Dick, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Das Kapital, The Fountainhead -- until just a few historical moments ago, we might have disagreed about their value and politics but agreed in unspoken consensus that all were what we called "books." But now, as they become digital publications, whether as e-books or as online databases or even as apps, are they still books? Should we keep calling them that? Does it matter? Just semantics, you say?

Do we miss anything about their "bookishness" when they become, in their different ways, digital? Individually, perhaps less than we might have thought. But collectively?

Digital forms -- e-book, web, apps, and emerging hybrids -- do some things, many things, in fact, that we used to associate with the book just as well and in some cases better: search, update, transport, archive, refer, and encode data about reading and readers. And they offer up new things, too: geolocation, audio, video, zoom, social reading, and accessibility for the visually impaired. From an economic perspective, they offer effectively zero marginal production cost, near-zero marginal transaction cost, immediacy of delivery, and a far greater selection of titles available to individual readers regardless of location.

With DRM-free digital publications, readers can also anthologize, excerpt, comment and even bowlderize their own editions. Indeed, readers can now move the production process backwards, as it were, to create their own custom print editions of books originally purchased digitally.

In some sense, the digital form gives the reader more control over the experience of reading; with the emerging digital forms, the reader takes on -- or is technologically enabled to take on -- many functions that, until very recently, were the exclusive province of the publisher who alone had the authority and tools to fix and embed his or her editorial decisions into the print form.

Is It Just Semantics?

If it turns out that certain kinds of content can survive just fine and, indeed, might even thrive in their digital incarnations, then what shall we want, now, at this juncture in our cultural history, to have called a book? What, looking back from the future at our present as the past, shall we want to have defined as a book in order to create a legacy upon which that future can build? What we insist upon now -- at this very moment -- as being the defining qualities of the book will shape the contour of its meaning, its river bed, to use Wittgenstein's metaphor. While the stream of meaning we know as a book will flow on, new rivulets of meaning are forking off as we read, write, and publish digitally, these new channels each developing their own momentum and currents and so modifying over time the semantic landscape.

And yet, is there a kind of meaning conveyed uniquely in the book form? And if so, how are we as makers of books doing at articulating what is special, distinctive, and unique about the book form? When I listen to talks and read blogs by publishing colleagues who have either embraced the digital with enthusiasm or accepted it as a dreadful but inevitable reality, I am not satisfied by their answers to this question. Instead, I am struck by how often the "smell" of the printed book is what, when it comes down to it, at the end of the day, they say they'll miss and find so distinctive. Given that the olfactory is the sense most strongly identified with memory, this strikes me as a kind of preemptive nostaligizing, an anticipatory mourning that only barely masks defeatist cynisism -- especially when followed by the predictable coda professing great personal "fondness" for bookshops -- "fondness" being the profession of feeling the narrator would like to have felt for an old aunt in a Britsh mystery -- bookshops which, filled with the thus noted smell of musty books, are now rendered in digitally enhanced sepia-tone in the mind's eye.

Even the skeuomorphism of the visual design of the e-book space is musty. The "virtual" bookshelf that houses the icons for e-books on the i-Pad and other devices calls to mind nothing so much as a school library bookcase circa 1965. This skeuomorphic digital design might be mirroring more truth to ourselves than we'd like to admit -- that the book is done and over with, while at the same time contributing as visual meme to this historicizing of the book as "ye olde book."

When did the aesthetic of the book become so rearguard? When did the book take on the patina of "vintage"? Is the Hunter Green color scheme of Barnes & Noble not just a Disneyfication of the Ivy League library? Is an ersatz musty tome in a dusty Victorian bookshop what our generation will bequeath to the future as the exemplar of the book?

We can do better. Surely we shall want the book to evoke more than mustiness and nostalgia. And won't we want also to have left to the future a more vibrant image of the bookstore than that of Flourish & Blots in the Harry Potter stories?

What, then, are the kinds of bookish books we ought to be publishing today as exemplars of the book for the future? What is the enduring legacy of "bookishness" that we want to -- may I say "ought to" -- transmit to the future? What kinds of meaning are and can be transmitted uniquely in the book form? What is the "bookishness" of the book that does not survive conversion, translation, adaptation, or reformatting as a digital publication? And what kinds of books even posses this quality?

The artist's book field is notable for its obsessive reflection on self-definition: an outsider to the world of artist's books can't help but be struck by the intensity of the debate within the field about just what an artist's book is and isn't, about what does and doesn't merit the name "artist's book."

At a time when the mainstream publishing community is struggling to define what the book might be in the digital future, I reckon all of us can learn from not only the inventiveness of artists' books themselves but also from the very structure of this debate about definition and naming. Why the artist's book field takes its own naming so seriously is not, I think, just semantics, but a genuinely political struggle for a "just semantics" motivated by a fierce desire to create and articulate kinds of meaning and experience that have been rendered mute by the commodification of the book over the course of that very same twentieth century in which the artist's book has developed. This is one way of understanding Johanna Drucker's ambitious dual claims that, one, the artist's book is the quintessential twentieth-century artform and, two, that "[w]hat is unique about artists' books is that, with very few exceptions, they really did not exist in their current form before the 20th century." The artist's book is by definition other to the commodified book that comes into existence in the last century. It plays itself out in an ongoing dialectic and agon against its dark commercial twin.

And, by that logic, the artist's book is necessarily, like philosophy, a late-comer: Hegel's owl of Minerva which begins its flight only with the coming of the dusk of an era.

Or, perhaps, the owl of Terpsichore who dances at night in Ulisses Carrion's space-time.

I speak of dance because I believe it is the reader's distinctive somatic experience of the physical book that most resists translation into the digital form. Indeed, I question whether there is any equivalence, any translation whatsoever of the somatic experience of the book into the digital. Or whether it would be a category mistake even to try. In the process of grappling with the digital form, I find that what I miss most is not, in fact, the smell of the printed book, but rather the extraordinary symphony of movement that is a great art book, photo book, or, of course, artist's book. By somatic, I don't just mean the movement of the arms and hands and head and neck and shoulders and eyes as I page through a book. Nor even, the beauty of the evolved scale and proportion of the book page to the human face and hand. What I insist upon is a somatic experience far more powerful: I mean the awesome, truly distinctive choreography of movement in my brain from left to right, from right back to left, from spatial to temporal processing, from visual to verbal and back again, the thick temporal symmetries of the dance steps my brain takes as it progresses through the book. I was fortunate once to spend uninterrupted time with one of Dieter Roth's two-handed sketchbooks in Ira Wool's collection -- I can only describe the experience of it as brain dance.

The simple feature of bound sequenced pages with fronts and backs and openings and closings turns out to be not simply a tool but a remarkable space-time forum in which one of the most distinctive features of the human brain -- its bilateralality -- can experience itself. To those who liken the printed book to the horse and buggy (and there are many, I'm afraid) I say, no, the book is more like the bicycle. And as enduring. The bicycle: a simple but ingenious design harmoniously suited to the bipedal structure of our human body. The book: a simple but ingenious design harmoniously suited to the bilateral structure of our human brain. When, in the future, we speak of the book, I want us to think of that object which so effortlessly affords the reader a structured self-experience of the bilateralism of the brain.

We are at a truly unprecedented moment in cultural history. At such a time of vast change the question becomes how to have agency. With the word "agency" I mean something old-fashioned and humanist: an action founded on the belief that the outcome of the action matters; that acting makes a difference in the sense of rendering the future different than it would otherwise have been; that action can have effect not just as communication across space but also as legacy transmitted over time to the future. Agency makes a difference by making a new past for someone else's future. And therein lies the responsibility.

With the books we make today we have a historic opportunity to define the book as a distinctively somatic form of meaning tranmission, beautifully scaled to the human body and the human brain.

More important perhaps than our initial forays into the realm of digital publishing are what we are making now as exemplars of the book to transmit to the future. Let us not leave the future with the smelly nostalgia of musty books.

Let's ask ourselves: what shall we want to have called a book?

Sharon Helgason Gallagher
President and Publisher, ARTBOOK | D.A.P.

Excerpted from the Keynote delivered at the 2012 BOOKLIVE Conference, June 8, 2012, London South Bank University

See Conference Website:

What Shall We Want to Have Called a "Book"?
What Shall We Want to Have Called a "Book"?
What Shall We Want to Have Called a "Book"?
What Shall We Want to Have Called a "Book"?
What Shall We Want to Have Called a "Book"?
What Shall We Want to Have Called a "Book"?
What Shall We Want to Have Called a "Book"?

What Shall We Want to Have Called a "Book"?Sharon Helgason Gallagher is the President and Executive Director of ARTBOOK and of D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc. in New York, a publishing and distribution company she co-founded in 1990. ARTBOOK | D.A.P.'s museum publishing clients include the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Walker Art Center. Sharon is a graduate of Yale University, summa cum laude, and holds a Masters degree in Philosophy from Columbia where she was a University Fellow.

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