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The once and future book

Alex Gillespie looks to the past to help understand publishing tomorrow

Alex Gillespie is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto focusing on medieval book history. I had the pleasure recently of sitting down with her to talk about the advent of the book, what the book means to us, and how looking back can help us decode the future.

As an editor and avid reader I’m a big fan of books both the actual object and the multitude of stories, histories, and information that one can find within, but didn’t know very much about their history. So when I had a chance to talk to Alex Gillespie I was thrilled. My first question to Gillespie was – “When did the book first appear?” But as she mentions here the first question really should be – What is a book? According to Gillespie and other scholars, pre-book objects appear before the current era in the form of rolls while wax tablets, believed to have been around since the eighth century BC, are a big step closer to a current day book and where the term book comes from originally. What we think of today as a book, “stitched together folded pieces of paper…it’s not really a technology that takes off until…probably the second century AD.”

So what about ebooks? Are they even books? Yes. Ebooks are imitating the traditional book in look and, eventually, even possibly feel as Gillespie states, “What’s interesting is the extent to which we’ve tried to replicate codicological technologies.” The turn of the page has been replaced by a click though still carries the graphic of a page turn, why is this? Gillespie believes it is “nostalgic” as well as “habits we learn that are both intellectual and bodily.” [Discussed at the 4:57 mark.]

And what about that smell and feel of a worn mass market paperback or feel of the thick pages of a new hardcover will I, will any of us, experience the pleasure, comfort, and warmth of that with an ereader? Gillespie thinks so, she says today “we live in a world where we can see anything we want” with the Internet, however, we can’t touch them so we want to more than ever. The touch interfaces of personal electronic products that started, in earnest, with the iPhone understand this, and use it to perfection allowing us to tap and swipe to our heart’s content. Personal electronic devices are in their early days but as Gillespie continues “tactility is crucial and is a reason why when we think about the future of the book, both the book as an object…but also the ereaders that we are going to love are the ones that are going to be wonderful to touch.”

Finally, I had to ask looking at the entire history of the book – “Are ebooks a fad?” No, states Gillespie, [discussed at the 13:50 mark.] who knows what they will become, how we will change and if ownership will mean something different. She does see a fragmentation of book publishing, one in which, traditional publishers still have a place but also where we’ll see massive experimentation by people making books for their own communities much like in early medieval times, and also the desire to have special personalized books.

Take a look at the entire video below and stay tuned for Alex Gillespie’s TOC talk in February 2013. Learning about the past will certainly give you a different lens with which to view today’s publishing industry and book objects. You’ll also find that the massive changes we are seeing now has all happened before and will happen again.

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  • Barbara Williams

    Suggest looking at “The Book in the Renaissance” by Andrew Pettegree (Yale, 2010). I was intrigued by parallels to today’s technical turbulence in the early history of the printed book. Established authorities (the Church, the Venetian book trade) tried to block competition. Expanding technology allowed more diversity of opinion and opportunity . . . Seems to me there are fascinating parallels. 
    Barbara Williams