Review: The Book

I’m fascinated by books-as-objects: their physicality, the feel of their pages, the smell of them, how the circumstances of their production affects how we read them.

Hence Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book – an introduction to print culture, to the form of the book and how it’s used, from the bamboo strips of ancient China right through to today’s ebooks, hypertexts and artists’ books.

In particular, it unpacks how form affects content and content affects form – in other words, how a book is never just a container into which we pour meaning; its physicality controls how we can access and understand that meaning. So the various forms the book has inhabited over its millennia-long history have variously controlled how we relate to it, and how we share information.

One of the things Borsuk’s text does quite effectively is destabilise Western conceptions of the book as, almost, Platonic form: the idea that each copy of, say, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is exactly the same, the information contained in it authoritative and un-gainsayable. That may be effectively true now, in today’s publishing climate, but it doesn’t have to be. And have you ever noticed how reading a novel in a different font changes your conception of it, how you experience it? A text’s physicality is as important to it as the words the author writes down. Information is never transmitted without context, without a frame.

I don’t know anything like enough about print culture to review The Book properly, but I was appropriately fascinated by the questions it throws up about what a book is, what we use it for, and how it may change as technology changes. It’s something of a primer on the idea of the book, and so doesn’t seek to answer any of those questions, particularly; it just offers you a way in. I liked that. I liked The Book.

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