7 febbraio 2007
The pleasures of the printed book
The printed book represents a “cultural monument” of modern society. An instrument which ennobles civilisation on the basis of its informative (and formative) content, stored and little by little conveyed to increasingly broader social bands of individuals.
Books are loved for the ideas they express (conveyed through writing, design and photography), but often too for their intrinsic value of concrete, physical, tangible, “docile” objects, which follow our bodies in the act of reading.
“How wonderful, – affirms the well-known author and keen bibliophile Umberto Eco – a book conceived to be held in bed, on a boat, where they are no electrical sockets, or where and when a battery runs down; it endures rough handling, it can be dropped on the floor or left open upon our chests or laps when sleep overcomes us; it is pocket-size, it gets dog-eared, it records the intensity, the assiduousness, or the regularity of our reading, it reminds us (if it appears too new or uncut) that we have not yet read it (…) The book’s form is determined by our anatomy. They may be very large, but these are mainly for reference or decoration; the standard book cannot be smaller than a cigarette packet or larger than a tabloid. It depends on the size of our hand, and that – at least for now – has not changed, much to Bill Gates’ relief (…)”1
But the pleasures of the printed book go way beyond the sharing of ideas and the ductility referred to by Umberto Eco.
We could affirm – without fear of contradiction – that a book’s appeal derives from a multitude of pleasures. At the heart of these is the indisputable intellectual “seduction” exercised by the ideas conveyed through the book, together with its “comfort” of use. Revolving around this, we find other forms of “enjoyment”: visual pleasure (looking at and contemplating the internal composition, with regard to how its lines of text are structured and the clarity of the book-face, the rhythm of the pages in terms of balance between blank spaces and black type); tactile pleasure (touching the book with hands that “weigh” it, pass over its pages, appreciating the peculiarity and quality of its paper); olfactory pleasure (often produced when opening the pages of a book, which may also be considered a stratigraphic paper “casket” capable of storing and reviving after long periods of time the smell of paper, of print or other substances used in the process of book-binding).
Revolving somewhat more externally we discover the pleasure of book collecting; this comes within the phenomenon of bibliophilia which, not infrequently, borders on bibliomania. In this case, the pleasure of possessing (the book) prevails over any other.
It is evident at this point how the pleasure of a book is, in actual fact, a network of intertwined pleasures to whose structure various figures contribute: the author – with his/her ideas, writing, plot – who addresses the sphere of pleasure connected with reading; the editor, who intervenes in the physical characteristics of the “book product”; the market, which, through the diverse economic value given to books in circulation, determines people’s “urge” to possess a book merely as a product rather than for its contents.
The “sweet tyranny” of books
For a long time, books, especially “good” books have been – and still are – special, almost reverential objects, which line daily work spaces that are also our living spaces. Over the years, we have devoted ourselves to purchasing them, reading them, assimilating them and also conceiving and writing them, lovingly accompanying them – at times – right through to their printing, as in the case of Stone Architecture.
Only over the years though, have we awoken to the fact that printed books carry a constant whose peculiarities have given us much food for thought: books always express precise stories through the powerful individuality of the author. The book – in other words – as a “definitive, unpursuable step”: a conclusive writing exercise by the author who – in the end – is forced to abandon it, leaving it to the readers and to its autonomous life.
But in the same way that one may love a book, it is likewise possible – we have learnt – to fall in love with the project which generated and nurtured it.
This is what happened with the book Stone Architecture, printed at the end of 2004. We sensed that the exploration of the theme which animated it had not been completely exhausted, and this prompted us to go beyond the important stage of the book’s publication.
This time, however, for the theme’s “revival”, we sought different communicative methods from the traditional format of the printed work.
Continuing the cultural project, picking up from where we left off, derived from the desire to experiment the new opportunities of today’s culture and technology, linked to the electronic transmission of texts, images and sounds.
The web offers a new horizon, a medium in which to revive the theme of stone architecture. A “widened” and “fluid” cultural space, very different compared with the “delineated” and “frozen” condition of the book; an innovative communicative channel of production, of transmission, of exploiting the content, but also a social network participated in by individuals who meet, converse and interact online. The choice, this time, is in favour of the cyberspace and all its potential; a very particular world where new methods of processing, distribution and use of content (entrusted to the digital transmission of texts, images, sounds) have given life to a true cultural revolution over the last fifteen years.
In Storia della lettura (History of reading), Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier help us grasp the important characteristics of the new economy of production-use of content, in all its innovative and in some way subversive value.
“In fact, reading on a screen is not like reading from a code. The new representation of writing, firstly, modifies the notion of context, substituting the physical contiguity amongst texts present in a single object (book, magazine or newspaper) with their position and distribution within logical architecture – that which governs databases, electronic indexes, catalogues and key words that enable us to access information. It redefines thus the materiality of the works, breaking the physical bond existing between the printed object (or manuscript) and the text or texts of which it is bearer, and giving the reader – no longer the author or editor – control over the subdivision or presentation of the text appearing on the screen. The whole system of identification and treatment of the texts is therefore inverted. Reading on a screen, today’s reader – and even more so, tomorrow’s reader – rediscovers something of the position of antiquity’s readers, who read a volumen, a scroll. But – and the difference is quite noticeable – with a computer, the text unfolds vertically and is equipped with all its own reference systems (paging, index, plates …). The cross between the two logics operating in the reading of the previous mediums of manuscript and printed writing (volumen, codex) clearly indicates the establishment of a completely innovative relationship with the text.
This logic is adopted within the whole reorganisation of the “economy of writing”. Nowadays, with the possible simultaneity between production, transmission and reading of a single text, and giving one individual the tasks – until now distinct – of writing, editing and distributing, the electronic representation of texts nullifies the old distinctions which separated intellectual roles and social functions.”2
So the project on the stone culture, originally linked to the “microcosm” of the book Stone Architecture, resumes and broadens its horizons using the new “economy of writing” permitted by internet, freeing itself from the unique product of the book (where the figures of author, editor and reader are completely distinct) and evolving into a free, open work of collective intelligence, self-edited on the web where it is possible to eliminate distinctions, fixed roles, and cultural and editorial “filtering” powers.
The contents of Stone Architecture are very slowly poured onto internet so that they may be reached and shared by those who do not possess the book. As the texts and images circulate on the web, they tend to break up and separate compared with the linear, sequential dispositio of the book, and redistribute themselves along with those completely new products by co-authors progressively involved in the collective intelligence product promoted online.
Ideas thus take their revenge over the “sweet tyranny” of the concluded book; they are revived without relinquishing their acquired qualities, whilst others are conceived through open forms of cooperative intellectual production.
1Umberto Eco, “Perchè di amino, si desiderano, si collezionano i libri?”, Repubblica 16.9.2006 (original edition 2001).
2Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Charter, “Rivoluzioni” p: XXXIII in Storia della lettura, edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Charter, Bari, Laterza, 1999, pp. 474.