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Winter 2013

Bibliolatry and Its Discontents

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Paul Duguid

Book Was There:
Reading in Electronic Times
by Andrew Piper.
University of Chicago Press, 2012,
$22.50 cloth.


How to Do Things with Books
in Victorian Britain
by Leah Price.
Princeton University Press, 2012,
$29.95 cloth.



Paradoxically, it’s ancient literatures that may be best positioned to accommodate whatever replaces the conventional book. Having survived transitions from oral to written, from scroll to codex, and from manuscript to print, classical texts can appear indifferent to the particular forms they have taken over time, always ready to move on to something new. Yet it is striking that from the start, the ur-epic Gilgamesh (geographically, the Uruk epic) is thoroughly self-conscious about its material underpinnings. After telling us to look beyond the present to “see” the wall of Eanna, “view its parapet,” and “take the stairway of a bygone era,” it asks us also to look through the object in our hands and


See the tablet-box of cedar,
Release its clasp of bronze!
Lift the lid of its secret,
Pick up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
The travails of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh
(tr. Andrew George)


A poem that first circulated orally, and only survived because of the durability of cuneiformed clay before coming comparatively recently to the alphabet and print, begins by insisting on a particular and particularly pompous instantiation. So doing, it prepares the reader with the Penguin edition in hand for a story that, like Gilgamesh, has come “a far road.” Crawling across millennia, some texts don’t so much slough off their earlier carapaces as accumulate fragments to help them and us move along.

Not too long after Gilgamesh was committed to stone, Plato reported Socrates’ famous denunciation of writing in Phaedrus. This again self-consciously invokes the material form of text, beginning with the jovial Socrates antedating Mae West by a couple of millennia to ask the coy Phaedrus whether that is a scroll beneath his cloak. A little later, this celebrated enemy of writing tells Phaedrus, “You will lead me all over Attica and anywhere else you please by waving the leaves of a speech in front of me.” The allure of the physical is again unavoidable, if still ambiguous.

Although what most of us now think of as “the book”—the codex form made up of pages bound to a spine—began to spread not long after Socrates, it took more than six hundred years for it, rather than the scroll, to lead Western readers where they pleased. This technological triumph is usually explained in terms of the codex’s greater efficiency. But such accounts have to assume that pagans, Jews, Indians, Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, all of whom advanced quite happily without the codex, had no interest in efficiency, even though the last three were centuries ahead of the West in the development of the impressive efficiency of print. In fact, the codex is more likely to have spread among the new Christians of the West, and later the Islamists, not for its efficiency in delivering text, but for its ability to signify that its holder was bound for a new religion, not still enrolled in the old. (It should not be surprising, then, that enthusiastic readers of e-books sometimes resemble new sectarians.)

Both Andrew Piper in Book Was There and Leah Price in How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain look back to the rise of the codex, noting its symbolic and practical contribution to the conversion of Augustine of Hippo. In response to the visionary command tolle, lege (take it and read), Augustine had dived randomly into the Bible—something more easily done with a codex than a scroll —and taken inspiration from what he had found. Nevertheless, despite the contribution of the codex to the making of this Church Father, Christians were, as Price notes, uncomfortable with the book as a physical object, fearing accusations of idolatry or “bibliolatry.” As if to escape the continuing influence of this aspect of Christianity, both authors seek to present “the book” as more than just an abstract text that binds itself with ease but without commitment to one particular form or another.

Piper is a professor of German at McGill University and an editor of Goethe’s works. His earlier Dreaming in Books explored the bibliolatry of the Romantic period—a form of worship that caused Balzac to compare books to opium. In her previous book, Anthologies and the Rise of the Novel, Price, a professor of English at Harvard, directed attention to the neglected anthology as a kind of compression technology for Western thought. In their latest books, both Piper and Price again confront their disciplines’ disregard for the book’s material form. But this time both are also attempting to address the concerns of a broader audience. Piper draws on ancients and moderns (including an intriguing selection of contemporary conceptual art) to help us “understand the relationship between books and screens.” Price looks at what people did with books (and printed objects more generally) to “understand the printed ‘before’ against which so many twenty-first century commentators measure their digital ‘after.’” That gray-screened eminence, the digital book, provides pretext and subtext for both these accounts.

Despite their shared search for “understanding,” however, the two take separate and usefully contrasting routes. Piper, who feels at ease with both paper past and digital future (he “was not just a reader as a child, but also a computer user”), offers primarily a personal meditation. Dreaming in Books explored Germans’ belief that their books shaped their dreams, and in Book Was There Piper considers how modern books have shaped his own dreams, while asking whether their replacement will be able to shape his children’s. Understanding the contribution of the physical shape of the book to the shape of dreams, he believes, can help ensure safe passage to a new form, as long, he cautions, as we don’t “hold too tightly” to the old.

Driven by concern that “material culture remains absent from our training,” Price casts herself as an ethnographer setting out to discover what people and books actually did in the nineteenth century. Consequently, where Piper is primarily comforting, Price is more sternly corrective. Hers is a scholarly assault on bibliophilic pieties, but equally a bibliographic assault on scholarly pieties. (She reprimands me for anthropomorphism in discussing books, quite rightly no doubt.) Thus when Price looks at childhood reading, it is not to dream, but to expose the sentimentality in Dickens’s account of David Copperfield’s retreat to the novels left him by his father. Such scenes, she notes, set up the stereotypical and self-serving Bildungsroman theme in which children retreat from humiliation and abuse into the insulated but isolated world of reading, only for that to turn them into adult novelists able to engage with the social life of books.

Piper explores this social life through an account of the German pleasure of reading in the woods, which “brought …readers and their books together in new ways.” Later, however, examining the Ramsays reading together in To the Lighthouse, he concedes that reading can be “a sign of what cannot be shared.” Looking at similar issues, Price turns to Trollope and a scene from The Small House at Allington where the two charmless honeymooners, Adolphus Crosbie and Lady Alexandrina, hide behind books and newspapers to avoid contact of mind or body. For Price, it is not so much that books unfortunately and inescapably isolate readers (what in the spirit of Yeats might be called the “perpetual virginity” of the mind), but rather that people aggressively “do things” with books—and for her this includes keeping and even beating others away. Piper calls his chapter “Sharing” and ends with a sanguine view of our desire to share readings and the implications for Facebook, arguing that “if holding [books] is a precondition of dreaming, facing is a precondition of caring.” (Piper has a tendency to struggle for aphorism.) Price, by contrast, calls her chapter “Repulsive Books” and goes from there to explore divisions and inequalities underwritten by books.

The different approaches are evident, too, in their view of the book’s signature material, paper. Piper notes that etymologically book and codex both come from words related to trees (as, indeed, does library), reminding us that paper (etymologically derived from papyrus) comes from wood products. Those Germans reading among the trees, he notes, provide us with “a literal reminder of where books came from.” Price nods towards these roots but more directly follows where printed texts ended up. After a chapter on “Books as Burden,” which examines the neglected topic of the circulation of religious tracts and other instantly disposable forerunners of junk mail, she provides a wonderful reading of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor and its account of the wastepaper trade. Here print documents passed through numerous hands, sometimes read serendipitously, sometimes used practically as fishwrap, and many times finally consumed in the fireplace or cloaca. Few have been brave enough to follow the paper we value in books to these unseemly ends. We should, though, acknowledge Joyce and his wonderful account of Bloom. Looking at webs of paper in the newsroom, he ponders “what becomes of it…wrap up meat, parcels: various uses, thousand and one things.” Though he refuses to name it, Bloom has shown us one, for we have already followed him through the “jerky shaky door of the jakes,” where he reads the newspaper before “tear[ing] away half the prize story sharply and wip[ing] himself with it.” Piper acknowledges that “we do different things with these different instruments,” but he doesn’t go as far as Price in exploring what we do. Need we go so far? Can we not hold onto romantic ideas of the book and ignore its descent into the underworld?

In their different ways, both authors suggest we do need to. While restricting themselves to the relatively limited physical forms of popular print, both indicate the versatility of book and newspaper, suggesting that any attempt to narrow our gaze risks misunderstanding how these forms did what they did. As Price shows, the fish wrap and the pie liner, and by extension the privy, became clichés of reviewers, who would taunt authors and publishers with where their work might end. For Victorians, the outhouse staked the outer, but quite real, bounds of consumption and circulation and undermined the piety that is too easily associated with the romance of publication.

Romanticism, moreover, is not merely the harmless failing of the codex-addicted bibliophile. It is rife among the digerati, where the long yearning to “upload our minds into cyberspace” suggests a fear of the physical quite as profound as that of the early Christians. Obituaries of Michael Hart, the founder of the original e-book repository Project Gutenberg, who died a year ago, revealed an admirably simple faith in the books which he typed or scanned tirelessly into computers for forty years. Project Gutenberg has shrunk from the main collection to a footnote in digital libraries, but the implicit assumption that the book is little more than typed text, that all else about the book can be cast off, and by extension that the codex is a uniform, orderly object, has spilled over into far larger projects like Google Books, where a similar romanticism continues to trivialize the significant investment of time and money by both Google and major libraries.

Equally, in a show of innocence about how books are read, the new e-readers have deftly returned us to the age of the scroll, despite all those stories about the communicative advantages of the codex. The scroll, as Peter Stallybrass has pointed out, is fine for novels. The codex shows its strength on those many occasions when our reading does not start at the beginning and proceed to the end, but when we read books with fingers stuck in three different sections and bookmarks in a couple more, moving quickly back and forth from one to another, marking up pages as we go. E-readers fail miserably at such tasks. If, as Piper worries, they are unable to shape our children’s dreams, it will primarily be the fault of the linear imagination of digital designers.

Along with naiveté, romantic views of the book also bring with them a fair amount of humbug. The book and the newspaper are, of course, deeply implicated in our ideas of modern democracy, freedom of the press, and the public sphere. Assumptions that books are inherently enlightening and emancipating need, however, to confront evidence that they can be blinding, binding, and divisive. Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason is intriguing for the way it pits his hard-won knowledge of how books work against the reader’s simple faith in one particular book, the Bible. Of course, from that day to this, many have taken Paine’s book not as a triumph for truth, but as the epitome of the evil books can do. But either claim only endorses the underlying point that books are not inherently good. Milton’s line that “so truth be in the field…let her and falsehood grapple, whoever knew truth put to the worse?” is magnificent, but is it true? Or does it obscure the work that has to be done for books to do good, and permit by default a lot of bad to be done in their name? Price offers the nice example of the post office reform apparently undertaken to serve the personal letter writer, but which in fact fed the interests of bulk mailers. Similarly, arguments for changes in intellectual property laws are often made in the name of the noble individual writer, yet serve primarily to extend the stranglehold of large corporations over the work of those individuals. Our readings today are no longer clasped in bronze, like Gilgamesh, but rather in the software tools for Digital Rights Management, which Piper rather oddly favors. These don’t unclasp so easily.

If we don’t scrutinize grandiose claims about what books are and what they do, and if we remain naive about what can be done with them, we risk not only dragging the voluminous past with us into the future unexamined, but also creating new impositions when we get there. Twenty years ago, digital technology seemed to promise equal access to scholarly resources. Instead, many have been clasped in DRM tools and boxed behind the parapets of expensive digital subscription services. Academic access is probably more severely divided by institutional wealth now than before the digital age. In sum, these two works about books and screens, different though they are, both suggest that if we don’t get a better sense of how we have done things with books in the past, we may become victims of how others do things with bits in the future. We want our new technologies to allow us to dream about the age of Gilgamesh, but we don’t necessarily want to be taken back there to live.




Paul Duguid teaches in the School of Information at UC Berkeley.
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