Venus on Mars

Books in Place

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on September 7, 2012

Books as Decor

I’m staying for a few days in a historic inn: no TVs in the rooms, but books everywhere. Old books stacked on tables in the lobby, upright books lining shelves along the stairway, books nested in a basket by my bedside. I have yet to open any of them, but did take time this morning to look at some of the titles. Nothing notable, not even classics, which suggests the books have been placed here as decor, as part of the inn’s charming ambience, and not necessarily to be read.

In his 1964 essay “The Book as Object,” an incredibly prescient Michel Butor suggests that the book (back then there was only print) may have outlived its usefulness, deserving “no more than an indulgent smile” as we pass by the bookshelf where it rests. The problem, he suggests, lies in the very construction of the book itself, in its physical characteristics – lines, columns, pages, margins, typography, fonts. He assumes these characteristics to be fixed and unvariable, and in 1964 this was true. In the Admiral Benbow Inn, this is still true – I’m guessing some of the books around here haven’t moved from their places in years.

But what if, Butor muses, “in another dimension of space,” books may achieve “mobility” with regard to the text? He describes them as “reference points” embedded into the linear text, allowing the reader of a book to “explore it without having to endure it.” (This was about this time the term “hypertext” was coined and Butor’s musings were on their way to becoming accepted practice.)

The way I found my way to Butor’s essay proves we have arrived.

My friend Jim Mahoney recently sent me an email saying, here’s something you may be interested in reading, “about how movies on dvd are somewhat book-like, which brought you to mind as you are making books that are somewhat movie-like.”

I followed the link and read an article “Observations on Film Art” by Kristin Thomas and David Bordwell, which was certainly worth a read, but I was most taken by a specific reference made to “experimental novelist Michel Butor” and his notion that the book should be “an object to be manipulated at will” and that such manipulation “harbored the possibilities of innovative storytelling.”

Or course I Googled Butor, couldn’t find the text I wanted online, but did locate the book containing it by title. Next, in the SFSU library holdings online, I found the volume. I requested it using the new “book retrieval system” – a quick drive down Holloway Avenue and the well-worn book was in my hands.

The important aspect of this entire process was that until the librarian handed me Butor’s book, nothing remotely resembling a book was involved, and I didn’t even have to get out of my easy chair.

If books are to survive as useful objects, not just relics whose presence in a room adds a little class or invokes a nostalgic smile, they certainly must continue to evolve as more than their immutable physical parts.

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