Book Was There: A Conversation with Andrew Piper

The following is an interview with Andrew Piper, associate professor in the department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University who has recently written ‘Book Was There’ – A presentation and discussion of current debates surrounding the book both past and present. It is at the same time a nod to University Presses – an often overlooked publishing platform by many outside academia but one that can add to both our photobook shelves (with the likes of Eugene Smith’s ‘The Big Book’ and Rachel Sussman’s recent publication ‘The Oldest living Things in the World’) and our understanding of the book as medium (‘Various Small Books’, ‘The Pivot of the World’ etc).

The Oldest Living Things in the World

We started by discussing whether ‘books’ is in the first instance too large an area to understand with any certainty or to pass comment on, whether it prohibits valuable discourse as the word covers so many genres and sub-genres. Andrew pointed out the different roles that books play in our lives – and that the children’s book, or the photobook together with their place in the 21st century, should be understood separately independently.

Discussion regarding the photobook as a prospering genre led to the qualities of the corporeal bookwork…

[AP] There is a lot of effort to pinpoint what is special about the physical book as apposed to the digital book and so a lot of publishers are experimenting with design and material. It is no longer enough to separate your book from the other books in the store but now also important to separate ‘the book’ from it’s digital counterpart. Publishers are putting a big amount of thought into artisanal qualities, they often draw from historical styles and tropes to emphasise the tactility, permanence of these things. [AP]

This is something we can quite easily see in current photobook trends. Just as books on birds, fauna and a Walden-esque life with subtle cloth covers and embossed spines now pop up on tables in Waterstones and Borders, so to the photobook store is decorated with wooden slipcases, exposed bindings and textured wraps.

So is this a hankering for the nostalgic? For the books we used to own or the books our parents used to own? We hear about the digital native, or at least of a generation growing up with screens in place of paper – what do they have to be nostalgic about – where is their reference? Is this a craving without full understanding?

[AP] Yes I think that’s exactly it, I have yet to meet a large cross section who is just completely spent with print, I know it must exist! For a while there was the myth of the digital native and at some point that might happen but for the most part the majority of my students have a clear idea of bifurcation. They know how to read online (and they do) but they also have really strong and often sentimental attachments to book reading. I just taught a ‘history and future of the book’ class and from 60 students I couldn’t find any who were completely done with the book, and in fact most of the class was more interested in the past of the book rather than the future. I think the harder sell is the future; computation and electronic texts. [AP]

Again here we can relate to the photobook – which is experiencing a surge in interest – interest in the physical, corporeal work rather than digital possibilities. There have been interesting experiments with digital works (Via PanAm is a reliable example) but for the most part it has been pushed to the side with few champions of the medium (a notable exception being Matin Brink’s blog which burned bright but short). We can also see that the community of photobook makers and consumers is a variably aged one – my students of 18-25 are as passionate about the codex as my academic peers, or perhaps more so!

Carol Golemboski’s ‘Psychometry’: a hybrid book

We turn quickly towards a frustration with the narrow romantic or eulogistic discourses surrounding the book. Andrew comments on his dislike of this binary argument and his response…

[AP] … this is what led to me writing the Book was There, the debate was so ‘either or’, there were these really polarised camps and it didn’t reflect my own interests and experiences or that of my students. It also didn’t reflect well the world we inhabit which for the time being is hybrid. It seems silly to fetishise one thing at the expense of another or to worship the new at the expense of the old so I was trying to put the two in conversation with each other (which is hard as people do seem to fall into these two camps). I am a curious historian by nature, I am interested in where things come from and how they live on. For me you can’t understand computation and electronic texts without understanding books. [AP]

One of the key aspects of ‘Book was There’ was thinking of reading and the book as different things. We understand that the book does not translate well to the screen – but does reading? (I went off on a bit of a tangent here about how photography’s second paradigm shift has led us to think of the image and the photograph as different things – the image as communication [mms/instagram/snapchat] and the photograph as a more traditional medium of expression)

[AP] That’s a really interesting distinction. I wanted in ‘Book was There’ to disaggregate reading from books, the history of the book and the history of reading bleed into one another but they have separate histories and uses also. [AP]

Here I wonder whether the unbound electronic text is changing the way that physical bookworks are produced and read, whether we are seeing more experimentation?

[AP] Its a good question because there is a lot of experimenting but it always remains very experimental. If you think of commercial presses they are still working with a fairly coherent and unchanging notion of what a book is even though they are very happy to sell electronic books. I don’t know when or if that will change, I don’t see signs of publishers really experimenting (beyond the likes of the Kindle ‘single’). When people write books today they are still writing things that look like books of old. They may be sold in different formats but the concept hasn’t changed in the mainstream.

It may be that it is a really important anthropological constant, it’s been a very powerful media for a long time so it is naive to think it might disappear overnight. Yet on the other hand I feel like if people spent enough time in their lives clicking through the web to find things, you are going to have readers who feel less comfortable with the book in it’s traditional format. maybe all that clicking makes you want the book more! [AP]

Perhaps this is where the photobook comes into its own as it has often, if not always, been an experimental medium. Its status as a luxury/art-object/cult/underground means of presentation has given us the accordion of Ed Ruscha, the hidden secrets of Ben Krewinkel and the anti-linearity of Paul Graham.

Conversations with Gaulbert

I was keen to hear Andrew’s opinion on the lack of a digital incarnation of the book, whether we could even expect one…

[AP] I think that the timescales we are looking at are Darwinian, more than the human framework can really understand. We can’t see that evolution in action, in realtime. For me a lot of it is going to have to come from social pressures, the book has always responded to social needs – to address beliefs about how information and society works. A lot has to change before the book is not a good thing to serve social needs. Imagine education or entertainment – books are still very good at meeting broad audiences in broad ways. [AP]

And a last thought on University presses…

[AP] They are really where intellectual avant grade still happens, there is a lot of mundane stuff gets published with them but they are a test bed for new ideas that commercial presses wouldn’t publish. So they, like some of the smaller indie presses, are really key. [AP]