What Is a Book?

Not just a bag of words, but a thing held by human hands.

BookTraces is a new project to track down the human markings in 19th-century books that, in the era of digitization, will (at best) end up in deep storage throughout the nation's library system.

The books are "a massive, distributed archive of the history of reading, hidden in plain sight in the circulating collections," the site argues. "Marginalia, inscriptions, photos, original manuscripts, letters, drawings, and many other unique pieces of historical data can be found in individual copies... Each book has to be opened and examined."

While the implications of this research are large for librarians (more on that anon), for the lay person, there is a fascinating question at the heart of this project to find and preserve unique copies of old texts:

What is a book?

In the Kindle era, it seems pretty obvious. There is an implicit argument in the act of digitizing a book and removing it from the shelf: a book is its text. A book is a unique string of words, as good as its bits.

But printed books are also objects, manufactured objects, owned objects, objects that have been marked by pencils and time and coffee cups and the oils from our skin. "A book is more than a bag of words," the project's founder, University of Virginia's Andrew Stauffer, told me. "These books as objects have a lot to tell us."

Like what?

Each book-object has two primary categories of stories to tell. The first concerns the history of the book's own reception. What annotations did people make on the text? What do their aftermarket markings tell us about how the book was read? How was it understood?

"In certain ways, a project like RapGenius is the modern day equivalent of what BookTraces might discover for the 19th century," Stauffer said.

When I interviewed him earlier this year, RapGenius' Ilan Zechory told me that he considers annotated-texts to be the way that documents should be experienced now. Instead of the fixity and narrowness we associate with print, the RapGenius vision is one in which all texts are surrounded by the ideas and people who inspired and commented on the work. The text is like a field of clover and the annotations are like bees, pollinating.

BookTraces, if it were widely deployed, could show that RapGenius has a textual precursor: the marks in books capture some of the ecosystem of ideas that surround all texts exchanged between people.

From booktraces.org.

Stauffer gives a poignant example. A woman named Ellen received a book by the sentimental poet Felicia Hemans. Years later, her seven-year-old daughter died, and she adapted lines from Hemans to create a memorial inside the book. Mary, Mary, Mary.

Moved by this, Stauffer looked at another edition of Hemans in the UVA library and found a similar tribute to a lost child. "This really tells us something about how people were using Hemans and this book to refract their own grief," he said.

But there's a second kind of story that the books can tell, too: the history of reading in the 19th century.

Each book-object contains pages of paper, which might have been prized—at any given moment—more as scrap paper for making a laundry list or doing longhand math than for its literary value. At the beginning of the century, Stauffer explained, paper was pretty expensive, as processes for turning wood pulp into clean sheets had not been developed. "The whole 19th-century is the story of paper getting cheaper," he said. "It's a little like digital access, the way bandwidth is getting better. There was just more and more paper available."

"In the early days [of the century], people are using whatever scrap they can because it is hard to come by," he continued. "But by the mid-19th century, I'm not sure we know what people thought about books. They had to think that it was cheap enough they could write on it, but it wasn't so cheap that it was like writing on a magazine or the New York Times."

The growth of digital bandwidth means that it will fall to our moment—this early 21st century—to decide the long-term future of this print record. We are unlikely to lose the books as bags of words. But we might very well lose them as objects.

That's because libraries are in a tough spot. Few people check out 19th-century books. The volumes are weird looking to a modern reader, and their typesets seem designed to cause eyestrain. So, librarians—being aware of this unpopularity, as well as their own never-very-big budgets—might decide that they should either put these books in deep storage or get rid of them altogether, after scanning their innards.1 

It might only cost a couple bucks to keep a book on a shelf for a year, but there are billions of books in the national library system. It adds up.

And the (well-intentioned and welcome) drive to provide access to these texts through Google Books and the Hathi Trust Digital Library has eliminated the need for even people who are interested in these things to actually look at the physical object.

So this is it, Stauffer wants us to know. These next few years will determine not if we preserve the history of print culture, but how.

The objects contain "all the social structures, language, technology provenance, all the pathways it traveled from the moment it came off the press to the moment it came into your hands," he said. "Who knows if there are ways we can illuminate those backwards paths?"

Trying to do so is why BookTraces exists. The project is a rallying cry to get people across the nation to start pulling 19th-century books off the shelves and looking in them for the traces of our human ancestors.

This project is interesting outside the library world right now precisely because, as Stauffer put it, "We're post-book," he said. "The book itself is weirdly alienated. We look back and we think, 'What did people think this book was?'"

As someone who has written one—watched it form like the shapeshifting robot in Terminator 2 into this material object—but also as someone who does most of his book reading in the iPhone Kindle app, I know this feeling of alienation. What the hell is a book these days?

Many of the things that used to define a book—fixity, objecthood, a publisher, retail distribution—all the stuff that used to give weight to the statement, "I'm writing a book," are being called into question by digital distribution, self-publishing, and the general mutability of electronic media.

It's like what happened on the web when people stopped calling written text an essay or post or story and started classing everything "a piece," categorizing it into the great space of the non-genre as another small bag of words.

So that was how I found myself pushing a stroller into the main stacks at Berkeley's library yesterday, reaching down onto a low shelf for a tiny book, which contained Felicia Hemans' poems.

What I noticed first was the pages. They were stiff, difficult to flip, almost like a pack of cards fresh out of the package. Not fragile, like you might imagine, but tough, rugged pages.

The next thing I noticed was the discoloration of the paper. Yellow splotches decorated most of the pages, but it didn't look to me as if a liquid had fallen on them. They were age spots, I guess, perhaps legible to an expert in the chemistry of decay.

Page by page, I searched for even a curious underlining. But there was nothing to see beyond the text, at least with human eyes.

I remembered another library of sorts at Berkeley. This one is in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. There, they keep racks of animal specimens of all sorts, awaiting future scientists. A strange memory: a tour guide opening a cabinet, pulling out a tray, and there are a couple dozen chipmunks, preserved. Another: standing in the pelt room among racks on racks of furs.

Chipmunks at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (Wired)

The point of that archive is that the physical object will always contain the potential to generate more information than any digitization. When many of the pelts and chipmunks were first preserved, we didn't know DNA existed and hadn't deployed a variety of environmental contaminants. Now, scientists can use them to do in-depth analysis of the animals that once wore these skins.

And maybe there is an analogy between the chipmunks and the book-objects. "The whole idea of what a copy of a book is needs to be troubled," Stauffer said. "If you got 40 copies of the same Longfellow book, each one would be different from all other ones." They don't just keep one chipmunk.

But Stauffer isn't utopian about his project, or arguing that all 40 Longfellow volumes need to be maintained. He understands the constraints and incentives librarians face.

"It's a little like biodiversity: What degree of diversity can we afford to maintain?" he asked.

From artist Rutherford Chang's The White Album (Rutherford Chang)

Via Whitney Trettien, who studies rare books and the 17th century 

1. This was about to happen to 5,000 newspaper volumes from the British Library when novelist Nicholson Baker stepped in during the late 1990s and created the American Newspaper Repository. He housed the archive in an old brick mill in New Hampshire, until Duke University eventually took over the collection in 2004. Baker even wrote a vigorous defense of keeping paper in the guise of a book called, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.