Long Live the Paper Book: A Motto of Digital Humanities

One of the first lessons I learned while attending DHSI 2016 was that the paper-format book, more than likely, will not die because of the proliferation of digital technologies and the culture surrounding it. Nor should books die. This seemingly counterintuitive statement comes from the course I took during DHSI 2016 called “Understanding the PreDigital Book,” hosted by book historian and modernist scholar Matt Huculak.

Why does a course surveying bibliography, print illustration practices, the manuscript, and the graphic novel even belong at a Digital Humanities summer seminar? The loudest answers are tools and formatting. Adriaan van der Weel points out that “by dint of our long familiarity with it, text has become so transparent as to make it all but invisible a technology” (69). Even though computing was introduced to the general public a quarter of a century ago, humanist scholars still consider the platforms/programs/devices that go along with it as new, intellectually progressive, and threatening. Because these inventions are just as material as they are virtual, they dislodge long-held assumptions about writing, historicizing, and thinking that seemingly transcended print technology. What emerges is the scholar’s responsibility to reassess the degree to which any technology facilitates the transmission of knowledge and culture.

In order to understand the present and future relevance of digital technologies in the study of human cultures, we must turn to our past: the book. The print book appeared as a symbol of permanence and authority arguably since the mid-1600s, almost 200 years after Gutenberg printed his first Bible, and before that, the print book competed with the medieval manuscript, the hand-written version of the book, as the simulacrum of evidence. Hélène Cazes argued in class that it would be more fruitful to study the book as a thing always in transition, which helps scholars think of the book, materially and content-wise as very much transmuting in the context of digital technology, as we can see manifestations of book culture in webpages, e-readers, online periodicals, scrollbars, as well as archives.

Reviewing the methods of bibliography that were being hashed out in the 1950s with Fredson Bowers is not flying in the face of DH, or reveling in the nostalgia of book fetishizing. The review is a sign that humanists have come full circle in contemplating what a text means. We can realize that many questions about empirical methods and quantitative data that humanists set up to do text mining or big data reading harken back to questions that bibliographers like McKerrow and Bowers unearthed when doing print text projects. These questions are central to humanist inquiry – like whether Roland Barthe’s definitions of “work” and “text” can comfortably coexist with definitions of “text” and “content” in editorial fields, as well as the expansive definition of “text” found in rhetorical contexts.

In light of the interdisciplinarity that Digital Humanists promote, it is crucial to continue studying the development of the paper book, along with the words they contain, to, if anything, further understand the way humans take in and transform epistemological paradigms.

Works Cited

van der Weel, Adriaan. “The Order of the Book.” Changing Our Textual Minds: Towards a Digital Order of Knowledge. Manchester; New York: Manchester UP, 2011. 67-103. Print.

By Anna Bighta

Comments are closed.