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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

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Woodcut illustrations adorn Hannah Murdoch's "Edible Flora: SDSU's edible gardens." Woodcut illustrations adorn Hannah Murdoch's "Edible Flora: SDSU's edible gardens."

A Fine Fetish

Far from precipitating the book's demise, digital literature has increased our fascination with books in all their varied forms.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

“A filmmaker makes film. Why wouldn’t a literature major make a book”

This story appears in the summer 2016 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

The scent of books is all the rage in today’s fashion fragrance world. Perfumers create products to simulate the ambiance of a library or “the unique olfactory pleasures of the freshly printed book.” (This latter fragrance, a joint venture with Karl Lagerfeld, goes by the name “Paper Passion Perfume.”)

Humans have fetishized books long before Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable type printing to Europe in 1439. For centuries, the great houses of the wealthy contained substantial libraries representing the owners’ education and breeding. “What a miracle it is,” said writer Anne Lamott, “that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.”

A comeback

The growing popularity of e-books unsettled many print loyalists, particularly in the 21st century as sales of e-readers skyrocketed. But books have staged a comeback. Retail sales at bookstores rose 11 of 12 months in year-to-year comparisons between April 2015 and April 2016, according to the American Booksellers Association.
Apparently, public fascination with books has only intensified with the advent of digital literature and the encroachment of a paperless society.

Artist Brian Dettmer gained fame by carving, molding and shaping old books into elaborate sculpture. He contends in a 2015 TED Talk that the digitization of information and reference material has allowed the book “to quit its day job…and become something new,” in the same way that photography freed the painting to be more than a faithful chronicler of people and events.

The art of making books—not refashioning them as Dettmer does, but actually creating them by hand—has found a new and appreciative audience among students majoring in art and English. San Diego State University English professor Jessica Pressman sees book arts taking its place within the humanities as a scholarly process.

“A filmmaker makes film,” she said. “Why wouldn’t a literature major make a book or at least understand how to make a book? The scholarly act of making demands an appreciation of the book’s historical context.”

Visceral beauty
Students in Michele Burgess’ Book Arts classes write, illustrate, print and bind their original ideas into limited edition books. They work with three printing presses manufactured by 20th century industry leader Vandercook & Sons, the oldest a manually operated period piece dating to 1935. Burgess has taught on campus for 16 years while also operating San Diego-based Brighton Press with her husband, Bill Kelly.
“The book has a kind of tangible, visceral beauty that surprises us sometimes,” Burgess said. “I see that in my students, how constructing something with their hands becomes such a revelation. They take responsibility for every single decision, from the size and shape of the pages, to the weight of the paper, to the type of font to the spacing between letters and words.”

Most of Burgess’ students choose to work in a traditional format, but others push the boundaries of book-making. “The House on Acama Street,” by Mario Saldaña II, substitutes a handmade wooden box for the traditional book binding and a three-dimensional snake figure for pages. His story of domestic violence is printed on the snake.
Each book created by Burgess’ students becomes part of an anthology in SDSU’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives, which preserves 70,000 printed volumes and more than 500 manuscripts, including a 1543 first edition of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’ text De revolutionibus orbium coelestium ("On the revolution of heavenly spheres").
Students, researchers and alumni have access to these archives. Visitors can make an appointment to “hold history in their hands,” said assistant head librarian Anna Culbertson.

Born digital

Pooling their passion for all things literary, Pressman, Burgess and Culbertson have collaborated on “Bookish,” an exhibition of work from SDSU book arts students, currently on display in the library’s Donor Hall.

It provides a taste of what’s to come when the Year of the Book debuts at SDSU this fall with lectures, panel discussions and workshops—all centered on the enduring appeal of books in this digital age.

Pressman, who previously taught at Yale University, is the author of “Digital Modernism,” published in 2014 by Oxford University Press, and is at work on “Bookishness, The Afterlife of Books in 21st Century Literary Culture.” She also heads up SDSU’s Digital Humanities Initiative, a campus-wide collaboration to study digital technologies, employ them in research and teaching, and examine the impact of the digital in society.

A central theme of Pressman’s work is the notion that literature takes many forms, depending upon its media. She studies how these forms—from print to digital—employ and exploit particularities of media format for aesthetic purposes. The term “born digital,” which Pressman references frequently, describes literature created exclusively on and for digital reading devices.

Browse the Electronic Literature Organization’s born-digital anthology @ to find all kinds of inventively formatted literature—hypertext fiction, kinetic poetry presented in Flash, novels in the form of emails or blogs, and collaborative writing projects (like Netprov) that allow readers to contribute to an unfolding story.

“Writers are thinking about new and experimental formats and forcing us to look at literature differently,” Pressman said. "The computational processes are part of the poetics.”

New stories

Pressman’s goal is to make SDSU “a beacon” for the creation and study of digital literature in higher education. She and Adam Hammond, also an assistant professor of English and comparative literature, teach classes in which undergraduate students create literature and literary criticism on digital devices. Hammond encourages students to use Twine, an open source tool that allows users to construct digital narratives with minimal coding knowledge.
“Engines like Twine allow us to tell stories in ways that were not possible before,” said Hammond, author of “Literature in the Digital Age,” published by Cambridge University Press.

“There was a lot of excitement about electronic literature in the ’80s and ’90s, but it was hard to produce," he said. "With these new engines, electronic literature has become a powerful tool for self-expression with a huge audience.”

As an example, Hammond mentioned “Depression Quest,” one of the first interactive stories created on Twine. As readers click through the tale of a young woman exploring her childhood home, they are faced with choices about what to eat and which activities to take part in.

Ultimately, the reader realizes that certain choices, though presented on screen, cannot be clicked on because they are “healthy” choices. The takeaway from “Depression Quest” is that severely depressed people don’t make healthy choices. In a printed book the reader would observe that behavior, but an interactive story forces readers to confront the reality of depression.
SDSU junior Riley Wilson used Twine to create her final project in Hammond’s Literary Programming class. Titled “Driving Alone at Night,” the story includes visual references to San Diego landmarks, including Balboa Park and the SDSU campus. Images appear at the top of the screen with text below. Readers must interact with certain parts of the text before the program allows them to proceed.
“I knew I wanted to tell a story about a recent graduate searching for what to do next, and driving alone at night was a metaphor for that,” said Wilson, who carefully crafted the text before choosing the moving images. Her work won the inaugural award at SDSU for the best work of student-made electronic literature.

A rich environment

The increasing popularity of digital storytelling with images, hypertext and flashing type doesn’t signal the death of the printed manuscript. Those who fear the book is an endangered species can take heart in the words of book historian and Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Darnton argued that new forms of communication do not necessarily displace old ones.
“Radio did not destroy the newspaper; television did not kill radio; and the Internet did not make TV extinct,” he said. “In each case, the information environment became richer and more complex.”

It’s this rich environment, this splendid array of opportunities for communication and storytelling that SDSU will celebrate during the Year of the Book. Lectures by Pressman and University of California, San Diego, professor Seth Lerer are scheduled, as is a book-making workshop, a DIY publishing panel featuring experts in the field and an electronic literature competition for students.

Central to the Year of the Book is the understanding of books as both art and artifact. In the moment of the book’s supposed obsolescence, Pressman said, there is a heightened creative urge to revere and fetishize it.

At the same time, contemporary literary culture has embraced a shift to digital technology, forcing us to see the book anew as a talisman for humanity’s hopes, dreams and best intentions.