The Infinite Book: The Plastic Logic Reader (and the Real Nature of Books)

Jorge Luis Borges writes:

When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure…. As was natural, this inordinate hope was followed by an excessive depression. The certitude that some shelf…held precious books and that these precious books were inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable….

We also know of another superstition of that time: that of the Man of the Book. On some shelf…there must exist a book which is the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has gone through it, and he is analogous to a god… Many wandered in search of Him.

It does not seem unlikely to me that there is a total book on some shelf of the universe….

Labyrinths, “The Library of Babel”

Andy McCourt, a columnist with printing industry magazine Print21, left a comment on an earlier post to share their experience with the Espresso Book Machine print-on-demand gadget. Mr. McCourt is in the habit of applying critical analysis to his enthusiasms. In a post titled, “May the Ox Be With You,” he looks forward to 2009, the Year of the Ox, by reviewing his preditictions for 2008, the Year of the Rat. Some of those were off-target, but his fifth prediction rated 10 points out of 10: digital paper is indeed making great strides forward, tempting us with visions of that long-sought book of all books.

Here is the demo of the Plastic Logic Reader which McCourt links to. Don’t miss the point at about 3:30 in the demo, where they smack the screen with a shoe, or later around 5:20, where Plastic Logic CEO Richard Archuleta mentions that the device works with an “open format!”

Will e-readers like this one (and others from iRex, Sony, Polymer Vision, and Amazon) be as disruptive and transformative as the Espresso Book Machine? In some ways, I think so — but they will continue a transformation that has already begun in music, reference works, and news: flexible, remixable, & potentially democratized delivery of “content.” In this case, the content is text, and the digital delivery system is designed to imitate the printed page, but does that make a difference for those of us who already read the newspaper (or an aggregation of several “papers”) on our laptops? Not so much.

The crucial difference, I think, becomes clear when we realize that the text/content that we read and the paper/screens we read from are not the only elements at issue; that there is an important tension between the bound nature of books and the unbound nature of digital media. The editorial package itself matters. Perhaps the two approaches will eventually meet in the middle, but for the moment, e-readers are trying to give print-like qualities to essentially unbundled digital products, while POD technologies like the Espresso Book Machine attempt to give digital advantages to the quintessentially bundled item, the printed book.

A book is essentially whole, unitary — a little world of human thought, word, & spirit, chosen, shaped, and bound within its covers. Books are bundles; a book is what is bound together. For what makes a book more than its binding? (That books may be remixed and rebundled does not invalidate the point. An anthology has its own sort of unity. Nor does this definition necessarily require that books take physical printed form, only that there be some mechanism — glue, stitching, standardized file format like ePub, or whatever — that binds the content into a relatively enduring unit.)

Andrew Golis notes that “All text is not created Equal” :

You produce a different product online. Hyperlinks, tone, form (shorter post that assume readers have read previous posts, etc.). It makes for a fundamentally different product that simply doesn’t translate back onto the printed page….

All of which is just to say that what we?re dealing with is not just a transition in medium. We’re in the process of not just radically re-organizing the media business, but media culture.

By this reckoning, some texts that seem the most “bookish” (dictionaries, encyclopedias) don’t really need to be books, and others that might look similar to books when printed (journals, magazines, newspapers), turn out to be far different items when unbundled online. Might not his insights work both ways? Are there not texts, and ways of writing, that are naturally suited to a bound format? Or if the binding makes the book, then what is it that makes us want to bind certain texts together? If, in our “editorial” wisdom or best “publisher’s” judgment, we see value in making a unit out of a set of texts, then we want that value to be preserved; binding preserves that value in a “book.” Such a book may or may not stand the test of time, but is this not what a “book” must be in our brave new media culture?

Which brings us back to the Esspresso Book Machine and the idea of Print on Demand. The printed, bound book takes that editorial decision and gives it the force of physical fact. The book in printed form takes that bundled whole and makes it present to our senses in ways that e-readers cannot match. The EBM gives any editor — amateur or professional — the power to make his or her ideas physically present in the world as real, particular objects. When those really present, particular bound objects are freed by the web from the constraints of shipping, given the flexibility of digital manipulation, and opened up to amateur control — when any possible printed book can be made whenever it is wanted, wherever it is wanted, by whoever wants it — then we are indeed facing a print-culture revolution.

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