n. A fetishistic attraction to the printed book as a way of denying that its demise may be nigh. This odd term - why bibilio- as a prefix an not biblio-? - was coined by Ben Ehrenreich to describe the practice of venerating the physical characteristics of a book over it's content.This particular definition, tucked away in the corner of WIRED's Jargon Watch this month took a nagging idea from the deepest recesses of my, admittedly small, paranoid suspicions, chewed it over for a few minutes before spitting it out, pointing at it and shouting it's name.
It's easy and common for blogs and mags to take cheap punts at why print might be in decline and to vehemently extol the virtues of mobile, digital text. Punting books is so old and tired, in fact, that even satires of the ubiquitous vehement extolling are growing tawdry. In the original article, Ehrenreich laments the bickering in the no-mans land the digital/print divide:
It is perhaps a symptom of print’s decline that the current conversation about the book’s demise has forgotten all these other ones. Instead we shuttle between two equally hollow poles: goofball digital boosterism a la Negroponte on one side and on the other a helpless, anguished nostalgia for the good old days of papercuts. Call it bibilionecrophilia: the retreat of the print-faithful into a sort of autistic fetishization of the book-as-object—as if Jeff Bezos could be convinced to lay e-profits aside by recalling for a moment the soft, woody aroma of a yellow-paged Grove Press paperback; as if there were nothing more to books than paper, ink, and glue.The decline of print as a medium for carrying content is inevitable, everyone, be you a faddy iPad-popper or some mad, finger ink-blackened, pale-skinned sociopath must accept this. Print will never truly die though. Bleakly, in a similar way to how the Ramones out-survived their own band and themselves through a t-shirt, print will never actually go away.
In years to come, we'll be seeing print relegated to a decorative object like a ship's compass or an hourglass - contemporarily-redundant, inefficient and outmoded by better, faster, cheaper ways of getting information. At 25fps for 17 seconds, a video of a seagull stealing a packet of crisps is worth 425,000 words - a 1,700 page novel. A novel that would take about 46.6 hours of solid reading to complete or 17 seconds to watch on YouTube.
The analogy is simple and thoughtless, but serves to highlight the perceived bilateral battleground of the future of text and set good ground for further research. Discussing the end of the codex is no simple thing, and it is the fault of booksellers and tech-columnists alike to over-simplify what we are pleased to call a phenomena.
All of our words for book refer, at root, to forms no longer recognizable as such: biblos being the Greek word for the pith of the papyrus stalk (on which texts in the Greco-Roman world were inscribed); libri being Latin for the inner bark of a tree, just as the Old English bóc and Old Norse bók referred to the beech tree. Likewise “tome” is from a Greek word for a cutting (of papyrus) and “volume” is from the Latin for a rolled-up thing—a scroll, which is the form most texts took until they were replaced by folded parchment codices. Prior to the late 13th century, when paper was first brought to Europe from China, the great works of Western civilization were recorded on the skins of animals. The Inca wrote by knotting strings. The ancient Chinese scrawled calligraphy on cliffs. (Do mountains count as books?) The printed, paper book, as we know it, dates only to the mid-fifteenth century, but those early Gutenberg exemplars were hardly something you’d curl up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The book as an affordable object of mass production—as something directly kin to the books that line our shelves—was not born until the 19th century, just in time for the early announcements of its death.And since about that time we've been looking at ways to hack what a book is and break it from the rigidity of it's form. It's easy and obvious to assume the malleability of text in digital form sets the reader 'free', where in fact the reader is constrained by a consciously designed progression of content, pre-decided by the designer or programmer. Espen Aarseth and N. Katherine Hayles both raise this in their books on the subject and others continue to point out the changing priorities within the reading machine - that of creator, medium, reader and content.
Aarseth perhaps raises the most erudite point, and perhaps the one that Kindle-bashers and gadget obssesives might both do well to bear in mind - that the medium is an 'ergonomic concern.'
Just as a film is useless without a projector and a screen, a text must consist of a material medium as well as a collection of words. The machine, of course, is not complete without a third party, the (human) operator and it is within this triad that text takes place.