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Writing > Essays

In the Space of Blurred Boundaries

Definitions and distinctions between books and book objects continue to be a subject of discussion in the field of book arts. In times of change, history (by way of nostalgia) is a way of hooking onto what seems to be slipping away. Definitions serve to hold it in place, either against or in relationship to the new. Faced with the new aesthetics and technologies of electronic media, the book is increasingly defined by its material qualities. The book is fetishized as a physical object not only in sculptural book objects, but also in the language used to describe printed books and to establish analogies for the computer.

The following is a set of identifiers, if not a definition: time and sequence, image and text, material and form, subject and content, history and function. The meaning of the object is not determined solely by these intrinsic identifiers, but also in relation to context. The identifiers themselves have been expanded because the computer has expanded the context. Time is reduced to fractal moments and sequence has become simultaneous layers. The identity of books and computers, although not quite morphed into one, do intertwine. The printed book can be seen as a nexus between the book object that relies on the frisson of reading to make meaning, and the computer that depends on the frisson of the tactile book for familiarity.

Reactions to contemporary book art include arguments that the book object is a fetishized artifact in relationship to the book, or the book is a nostalgic icon in relationship to the computer, or the computer will replace the book entirely in the progression that supersedes the past. This debate assumes a Cartesian model of ascendancy from the base form of the physical book, or body, to the supremacy of information technologies, analogous to the mind. So we fret over the imminent death of the book by computer while Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com is named Time magazine’s person of the year.

This article is an expanded version of a talk given at the Book Arts 2000 & Beyond conference at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, February 25-28, 1999. The panel Towards the Future of the Book was moderated by Betty Bright.