‘Treating the book as a bunker may shortchange its potential to engage with the world’, writes Leah Price in her latest book What We Talk About When We Talk About Books.
Price is referring to the widespread notion of books as objects of solitary and sedentary reading – the kind of reading seen to be undercut by digital technology. She is also referring, of course, to printed books.
Reading a book as a bunker is the opposite of reading a website, or an ebook from a device with a live connection. Reading a printed book is seen as closed and ring-fenced, while all other types of reading are open. Closed means focused, open – distracted.
Price’s observation goes to the heart of what the printed book does and to its historical impact on the age before it, the age of the handwritten book, the chirographic age (basically all the history of writing down to Gutenberg).
Writing is closure. The (sc)roll of papyrus is closure. The codex is closure. The page is closure. Print is closure. To write is to foreclose all the possibilities of speech and the fluidity of communication and expression by coagulating them into the permanence of writing – on stone, wood, papyrus, parchment, paper. The history of writing is the desire for permanance, for undelibility, for closure.
The scroll coils the text into closure, locking text behind layers of access: you can’t get to one section of the scroll unless you unroll the rest.
The codex covers the text within covers and binds it fast in its binding. The vocabulary of the bound book is one hesitating between protection and incarceration. The history of the codex moves from indeterminacy to careful replication: the ideal copyist resolves itself in the printing press.
Print is the culmination of closure. Mechanical reproduction, typographic alignment (justified text), rules and convention about everything from spelling to style, foster a climate of enclosure.
The culture of the printed book is a bunker, compared to oral and manuscript cultures. Reading a printed book corrolates with what print did to preexisting cultures: it isolates the reader from the world just as writing isolates the text from the spoken word.
One is reminded however, of that cartoon of the little girl who, while reading, is transported to another world. The bunker may be the only time machine we’ll ever get. Closure may be the antechamber to the open plains of imagination.
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