Funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO, 800,000 euro) within their innovative research scheme, the VIDI research project Back to the Book started June 1st, 2011.
Project leader and principal investigator is Kiene Brillenburg Wurth (associate professor Comparative Literature at Utrecht University). Phd-students are Inge van de Ven (RMA Literary Studies, with distinction, UU) and Sara Rosa Espi (MA International Performance Research, with distinction, University of Amsterdam/Tampere, Postgraduate degree Museum and Heritage Studies, University of the Western Cape)
Back to the Book is devoted to books and paper as bodies of literature in a digital age. Books are no longer dominant cultural media – though most of the pads and readers that will allegedly be replacing books still try to be just that: to be books. Yet if books are dying, what is happening to literature as an art form? Is it shifting toward the electronic field? Is literature being reborn digitally, is this the end – in a double sense – of the book?
We may be witnessing the end of the paper book as a channel of knowledge, and even as a channel of the literary classics – and obscurities – that are past copyright. But are we witnessing the end of literature as a paper-based art form? What is happening to literature in the present, the literature that is being made and published today?
Precisely during the ascendancy of the Internet, we have not seen the book and paper page wither away as bodies of literature nor, indeed, as innovative bodies of literature and self-expression. In 1992, Robert Coover still confidently predicted: “…the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology, a mere curiosity of bygone days destined soon to be consigned forever to those dusty unattended museums we now call libraries.” The future of literature would be elsewhere, away from paper, print, and bound covers. Electronic literature would take the lead artistically. Except that it wasn’t – and it didn’t. Why?
This is the question that Back to the Book seeks to answer. Strangely, since the 1990s, when Coover’s turnaround should have taken place, and especially since the 2000s, authors have precisely gone back to books instead of forward toward screens. Innovative authors, that is, who are interested in the materiality of books and papers, and the resistance of that materiality, who try to figure out what is peculiar about books in contrast to screens, or who try to open up the bounds of the book in its traditional form.
Thus there has been a veritable surge of creative re-imaginings of books as bearers of the literary since the 1990s. From typographic experiments (Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts) to accordeon books (Caron’s Nox), from cut ups (Foer’s Tree of Codes) to collages (Rawle’s Woman’s World), erasures (Rueffle’s A Little White Shadow) to mix-ups (Morris’s The Interpretations of Dreams), p-literature has gone through anything but a slow and uneventful death. If we are now living in a post-novel age, we haven’t exactly witnessed the book dry up as a literary medium. Nor have we seen e-literary modes like hyperfiction “take over” the novel as we have known it since the eighteenth century, or even in its more experimental forms. Perhaps, hyperfiction has never really moved beyond the page, or if it has, clicking on links may not be the most dynamic and adventurous of non-linear reading modes. We do it all the time.
In 1992, Coover still saw the proliferation of books as “the last futile gasp of a once vital form before it finally passes away forever, dead as God.” That last futile gasp has been long protracted: we are still enjoying it with works like Codex Espangliensis by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper, Paul Boogaers’ Onderlangs, or Brian Dettmer’s radical treatment of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. We are now even witnessing a return of the novel in its monumental format with Joshua Cohen’s Witz, Adam Levin’s The Instructions, or William T. Vollmann’s giant works. How is this possible, in the great age of distraction?
Perhaps, the digital is not taking over p-literature, but producing it anew. Perhaps, books, paper, and even hand-writing, as art media, have profited rather than suffered from the emergence of new digital media as they have reinvented themselves in contrast to these new media (as these media have done likewise with the old). Perhaps, predicting the end of books is itself the sign of an inability to imagine plural modes and means of writing and story-telling: of co-existence instead of take-over. Starting from this idea of media plurality, of divergence instead of convergence, our aim with this project is to explore the resilience of paper-based literature in the era of its foretold death.
We focus on book-altering and book art, typographic fiction, and personal zines to analyze this resilience. What about analog art in digital times? For it is not only paper-based books but also other analog media like vinyl, and even analog polaroids, that are going through a rebirth right now. Markedly, media theorists fascinated by non-linearity in literature and new media cannot see the non-linearity of media history: its dimension of simultaneity, of multiple time frames in which old and new media evolve coterminously, redefining and repositioning each other in their mutual contrast.
How is literature, writing, paper-based writing developing alongside digital media, and digital literature in particular, in the present? What kind of paper trails (as our phd-student Sara Espi calls them) are personal zines mapping – and leaving behind? How are they kept in libraries, and how do they continue to function as an analogous network, parallel to digital modes of writing and reading communities like weblogs? How is the novel repurposing itself materially, hovering between art object and reading object? How do altered books – such as those created by Brian Dettmer or Louise Paille – propose radically different modes of reading, perhaps even more radical than digital texts?
We do not think that our culture will ever be going back to books and widespread book-reading – to things as they were during the last two centuries (and really, it hasn’t lasted much longer than that). However, paper, the codex, and even handwriting continue to be used as material for literature in a way that runs counter to predictions from the 1990s. Books and zines are not crying out to be turned digital, to be immersed in the medium that can release words from the tyranny of the page: they are precisely exploring the limits of the internet and, in this way, the specific potential of paper and the codex.