The Book: Material Histories & Digital Futures

An NEH Summer Institute for College and University Faculty

Salt Lake Community College, June 17-July 13, 2018

The twenty-five scholars who participated in this Institute began by considering several questions: what is a book, and where do books live? How have human beings/bodies interacted with the book over its history, and what can its history teach us about the new and emerging modes of the book? Who is invited to read, and who is inhibited and even prohibited from reading, by any of the forms the book has taken or continues to take?

Historian of the book Nicole Howard reminded us that a feature of the book, even in its fairly early forms, was how it made words, and knowledge, transportable. Even tiny clay tablets made it possible to send information far and wide. Book artist and historian of the artist book Johanna Drucker suggested that we consider the book as both format, its literal and physical specificity, and as performance—what the book, in any form, is capable of doing, and does. For instance, the book—as tablet, as scroll, as codex, as digitally mediated object—changes the conditions under which knowledge and information circulate. But what do the changing formats of the book do to the book's performance? And for whom do these formats optimally perform?

Jonathan Senchyne's work posed questions of how our accounts of communities of print and textuality have dramatic omissions in them, and that books-print, and textual representations-move into the world like other products. In particular, his scholarship points to the role enslaved people played in the rise of print culture, as typesetters and paper makers. Whose work and lives are "invisibilized" in our histories? Historian Mara Mills' work makes visible the many technological interventions aimed at improving access to written materials for people who are blind or low-vision. She asked us to consider the arresting question of whether the forms of books constitute disabling environments, which themselves in turn produce disability. Anna Sigridur Arnar's scholarship on the French poet Mallarme invited us to take up his provocations: that "Everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book," but even more powerfully, his account of the reader, who brings the book into being by the act of reading. What, then, might this mean for us, considering a more detailed field of readers and accessors of written information, whose encounters with books in whatever formats are so incredibly diverse?

Each of the scholars in the Institute has conceived, designed, prototyped, and produced a book in response to these questions, working in the SLCC Publication Center, and using a panoply of materials, media, and tools: paper, circuits, code, cloth, ink-print, embossing, braille, video. The forms these books deploy draw from the history of the book, and imagine its future. With this exhibit, we draw on an iconic scene from St. Augustine's Confessions: weeping under a fig tree, Augustine heard the voices of children, saying, Tolle, lege—take it and read, meaning the book (The Book).

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