v28 #6 The Singularity of the Book

by Carey C. Newman  (Director, Baylor University Press)

Facebook is the world’s most wildly successful media company that neither produces nor owns any content.  Airbnb is the world’s most wildly successful hotel company that neither buys nor owns property.  Uber is the world’s most wildly successful transportation company that owns no cars.  Alibaba is the world’s most wildly successful retail company that owns no inventory.  Academic publishers must follow suit — or so say the industry gurus, the barons of third-party funding, the rajas of professional societies, and the high priests of power within academic publishing itself.  Publishers must become software companies without any books.

This vision of the future capitalizes on the technological confluence of the cloud, broadband, and mobility to transform academic publishing into an all-information, all-e, all-OA, and all-cloned enterprise, all the time.  Books — and any part of any book — can and should be free to all.  Books can and should be digital and perpetually available, anywhere, anytime, on any device.  And books can and should be bot-built, opening up infinite AI iterations of content based on carefully mined aggregations of readerly whims.  Datum sans corpus.

But to pass into full technological bliss, and to leave behind an undue and outdated fixation on print, academic publishers must master the mysteries of Big Data.  The challenge is to capture and tag all the data and content that can be captured and tagged, and, as it turns out, there’s quite a bit to be captured, acquired, tagged, stacked, indexed, remixed, clustered, cited, extracted, packaged, and fracked.  The quiet, quaint, and erudite, formerly located in some comfortable anteroom of global publishing, has been transformed at a dizzying pace into a bastardized mashup of frenzy: academic publishing is now an all-out arms race for technology and a Texas-sized, Powerball-lottery bet on content.  Publishers now must secure and digitize all the content possible — not knowing whether any of it is really valuable, but hoping that some of it just might be — and become experts in optimizing that content’s maximum discoverability and lure before, finally, creatively (and cravenly) monetizing the whole process for revenue.  This is the future, so say the wise.

Well, whatever this is, I am pretty sure it isn’t publishing.

What crime did the physical book commit to be so summarily treated with such disdain?  What is it about the traditional book that is so offensive and so irritating to so many?  Why such a dogged and determined effort to dinosaur the book?  Poor books.  They really did mean well.  They had no idea that their paper and ink, their spines and folds, would cause such a fuss.  Wooden.  Fixed.  Isolated.  Dead.  Unsearchable.  They could probably be forgiven if they weren’t so stubborn.  But there they are, such as they are, and they, and their publishers, have become the villains in the new meta-narrative for this post-disruption, tech-driven economy.  The true heroes are those who liberate content from its traditional, generically hegemonic bindings.  For far too long these arbitrary containers have held information constrained and shackled.  At long last information can be free, instantly, and free to — and for — an immense, invisible, and vast readership.  Links and tags.  Links and tags.  Content, links, and tags.

Against this backdrop the solitary figure of Aldus Manutius (1449–1515) appears unique and even comical.  Manutius, one of the very first post-Gutenberg publishers, established the glories of the Aldine Press.  His anonymous Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) is often said to be the most beautiful, and possibly the most unreadable book, ever published.  Graced with 168 woodcuts, unsurpassed typography, and riddled with bizarre and often indecipherable loan words from Greek, Hebrew, and Latin (and some invented languages), the book is eccentric — both Jung and Eco loved the book — lavish, and excessive.  At first glance Manutius is the poster child for all that’s claimed wrong with decadent and irrational academic publishing today.  But, upon closer inspection it might be that old Manutius may have something important to say to us today about the singularity and enduring worth of our common craft.

Manutius invented a true publishing imprint.  He produced books of such quality, in both content and form, that his books, collectively, constituted a recognizable brand, symbolized beautifully in a colophon — the anchor and dolphin — a colophon still employed by Doubleday today.  The Press’ imprint was so distinctive and effective that it was pirated.  Manutius was compelled to distribute fly sheets warning of the forgeries.  In language that sounds all too eerily familiar, he protested that the knockoffs used inferior paper, substandard typography, and were, um, marked by a certain “smell” — they emitted a distinctively “French” odor (having been printed in Lyon).

The books a publisher chooses to publish are a dramatic expression of singularity.  It is not just a particular book’s individuality, though it is that for sure; it is the collocation of a publisher’s particular books — their enchainment into a unique whole — that forms a house and defines an imprint.  A publisher’s unique practice of the craft, slowly but surely, tells a larger story and gains a purchase on the academic disciplines it serves.  The decision not to publish is equally artistic.  To publish the wrong book is to insert the wrong character into a novel; it is to paint a Dutch realist face into the corner of Starry Night.

Manutius’ singular genius can also be measured in his attention to detail.  Under the colophon were the Latin words festina lente, “hasten slowly.”  And that he did.  He hastened very slowly, laboring over every aspect of form.  Famously, Manutius invented italic type and insisted on a Roman type that was clean, readable, and elegant.  But his attentions were also drawn to the smallest creative aspects of publishing.  He invented the modern use of the semicolon and the comma.  He preserved the extravagant art and beauty of the illuminated manuscripts of previous ages and transferred the calligraphy of his day into his publications.  But he also tinkered with the trim size of his books, being careful to marry books to use.  He thus developed small, smartly designed editions, with plenty of room for marginal notes, of classics in a series he called libelli portatiles, “portable little books.”  In doing so, Manutius helped invent the modern idea of a personal library.  Manutius thus created something so unrepeatable and, yet, something that other publishers have sought to replicate through the centuries.

Kecia Ali’s The Lives of Muhammad (Harvard UP) rests on my desk.  Having lost this book to Harvard in the hand-to-hand combat that is acquisitions, I remained keenly aware of the book’s progress toward publication.  I was aware and jealous, jealous because I desperately wanted the book on my list, not only because Kecia is a great person (which she is), and this was a great book (which it is), but because this individual book would fit and define Baylor’s own imprint.  But my ever-present jealously turned to admiration when a copy of the finished book arrived in the mail — awe of the perfect way Harvard married the design of the book, right to the smallest detail, to the soul and vocation of the book.  It is perfectly sized and weighted.  The volume nests comfortably in the hand.  The matte finish invites exploration.  The interior font’s ability, ever so slightly, to echo the art of the cover and the arabesque that graces a mosque forms a hermeneutically robust koan for the whole. The leading is adjusted upward ever so slightly so that eyes are encouraged to skip along with Ali’s crackling prose.  The decadent endpapers, surely a wanton and irrational choice by today’s standards, mime the book’s signal of importance.  The table of contents brimming with concision, symmetry, and progression is poetic in sight and sound and arcs the narrative of the volume.  Ali’s very brief introduction sets the table for all the courses ahead.  The book is a symphony of detail masterly conducted by Harvard, its publisher.

Since Manutius publishers have lavished attention on covers, font, leading, gutters, margins, headers, trim sizes.  Publishers have long labored over prefaces, introductions, prose, notes, and conclusions.  None of this art is plug and play.

Publishing is not technology, though it employs technology.  Publishing is not a business, though it depends on money.  Publishing is art.  It is a dangerous art at that.  It is dangerous because it is so consistently irrational and decadent.  To spend so much time, imagination, and treasure on one book makes no sense.  Madness.  The danger of a book resides in its wisdom.  Any old machine can spew information; but the profusion and superabundance of information should never be confused with a specific and unique incarnation of wisdom.  Publishing, like the work of the author, is thus built upon an element of impossibility.  It takes a publisher, as an artist, to conjure a book.

Using the latest technology to screen Starry Night — or even a mashup of several van Goghs — on a T-shirt to make it available to the masses does not make the T-shirt art.  It just makes it a cool T-shirt.  The very particular glory of a van Gogh is accentuated and enhanced by the work of curators in providing a frame.  The singularity of Wheatfield with Crows, possibly van Gogh’s last, is perceived only at the end of a long, carefully orchestrated series of van Goghs.  By the time that particular painting is reached in the museum in Amsterdam you are both prepared — and utterly unprepared — for it.  The power of that unique painting communicates because of frame and framing.

There is no technological substitute for the singular work of a publisher, just as there is no technological substitute for the book itself.  As Umberto Eco reminds, “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel.  Once invented, it cannot be improved.  You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon.”  All that can be done is make wonderful, glorious particular spoons.  As it turns out there’s a craving for such artisanship.  The obsession with $6 coffee is because each bean is hand selected.  Chicken coops dot urban backyards because of the desire for intimate connection to what is produced.  The infatuation with everything handmade and locally sourced could be judged irrational and decadent.  And it may just be, when publishers practice the artistry of their singular craft well, their particular books will be talked about on Facebook, bought and sold on Alibaba, read in an Airbnb apartment, and accidentally (and serendipitously) left on the seat of an Uber ride.

 

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