¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 4 In December 2006, at the MLA in Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to hear Peter Stallybrass give a paper whose title indicated that it would focus on the relationship between textual studies — or the application of material culture approaches to the study of textual production — and the book. At the very outset of his presentation, however, he made a somewhat startling claim; in asking who, exactly, it is that produces the thing we know as the book, he overturned several basic assumptions about that form’s production often unconsciously held by both literary scholars and textual critics. Authors do not write books, he argued, suggesting that, actually, authors write sentences, or, on a larger scale, texts. But neither do printers produce books; printers, instead, produce pages. The primary argument that Stallybrass’s paper sought to make was about the need for textual studies scholars to think in terms of pages, both bound and unbound, in order to escape what he called “the tyranny of the book” (Stallybrass 2006).
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In setting up this argument, however, Stallybrass suggested, almost as an aside, that the book is a production, finally, of the binder. This is a point I’d like to dwell on a bit, as it suggests that the bookness of the book derives less from its material composition — ink-on-paper — than from its organization, the sequenced, bound, and cut leaves. As the conventional wisdom holds, it is the development of that form — the shift from the scroll to the codex — that, as Stallybrass argues in “Books and Scrolls: Navigating the Bible,” enabled “the capacity for random access” (42), allowing a reader to turn immediately to any particular point in a text, thus facilitating the reader’s active engagement in and manipulation of the textual object. Turning our material focus from print to binding as the source of bookness holds significant implications for scholars working on new, electronic modes of textuality, and in particular, on the future of the book. For if this is the case — that the formal properties of the book that have the greatest impact on our reading experience are derived not from print, but rather from the codex — one might suggest that researchers working on new ways of transforming ink-on-paper to pixels-on-screens may be working on the wrong problem, or at least the wrong aspect of a knottier problem than it has at moments appeared.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 The problem, in other words, may not be one that is material, about the differing properties of bit versus atom, but instead structural, organizational. Stallybrass notes the irony in digital textuality’s regression from the kinds of manipulation that the codex made possible, reimposing the limitations of the scroll on our reading practices. Despite having greater capacities for random access to texts via searching and other modes of linking, electronic publishing’s reliance on scrolling text too often fails to take account of the ways that cognitive practices of reading are spatially organized. See, for instance, Geoffrey Nunberg’s footnoted observation in “The Place of Books”: “One ancillary effect of this homogenization of the appearance of electronic documents is to blur the sense of provenance that we ordinarily register subconsciously when we are reading. As a colleague said to me not long ago, ‘Where did I see something about that the other day? I have a clear mental picture of a UNIX window'” (37, n31). Stallybrass similarly notes the dislocation that results from the inability to stick one’s finger between the pages of an electronic text to mark one’s place. None of this is to say that digital publishing ought to mimic the spatial arrangement of bound pages, but rather to suggest that those of us invested in the future of publishing online need to think in terms that are not just about page design, but rather about larger-scale textual structures.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 What follows is one perspective on the necessity of a web-native replacement for the codex form, using CommentPress as an example of one approach that has been taken in addressing that problem. This paper has, moreover, benefited directly from the technology that it in part explores; a draft of the article was posted for comment and discussion in CommentPress, allowing me in some sense to practice what I am preaching.1 CommentPress should in this sense not be imagined as a conclusion to the issues I’m exploring, but instead as itself a mode of exploration, one way of approaching the issues involved in electronic publishing from a broader structural perspective. At stake is not the success or failure of one particular technology, but rather our ability to produce a reading experience that provides net-native principles of organization as compelling as those of the codex.
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- The commentable draft of this article remains available at http://new.plannedobsolescence.net. Thanks are due to Bob Stein, Ben Vershbow, Jesse Wilbur, and Eddie Tejeda, for making the technology available for this experiment, and to Bob, Ben, Dan Visel, K.G. Schneider, Mark Bernstein, Richard Pinneau, and Sebastian Mary for their helpful comments on the draft. ↩