Recently with a group of students I discussed; what is it that makes the book so enduring and enticing as a medium of expression? It took a while for them to understand the question. For the college age student is more involved with their computer than probably any other medium, even art students. I kept at it though… what is this thing, this object that has so changed the entire direction of humanity?
Finally it started to come. The book as an object, a technology, a work of art was/is a sacred thing. For thousands of years the act of writing was a sacred act limited to the few. The act of drawing, illustrating was a sacred act. Often the very object of the book was and still is worshiped as though coming down from on high. The Hebrew Alphabet is actually the fire flames of YHWH. The Torah could burn you alive if not read properly. Books were considered dangerous because of the knowledge hidden there in. The Library of Alexadria was burned to control the information as the Christians were overwhelming the previous mystical studies found in centers like this. For years the book was copied tediously, often by hermits who did not even know what they were writing, the shapes more important than the content. Libraries were hidden, books were arcane and secret wonders.
If we look east, the book was a way to preseve and pass along knowledge about how to act, politics, religions, stories. They were often highly illuminated as well. And the east had its fair share of attempted suppression of knowledge. Shi Huang Ti burned books when he dominated China. Yet people buried, hid and sacredly kept books away from these pogroms…. the best survived.
So books are a historical link, a true link to the past, to the thoughts and ideas of those that came before us. We can actually know these people through reading their thoughts. Books changed in 1357. Few of my art students were aware of how much changed in that year due to the craftsmanship of a group of people in Germany and Italy. A metalsmith perfected type, Fabrianno perfected paper making, bindings were becoming simple enough for shops to pop up outside the control and purview of the church. This middle class or at least merchant class awareness of the value of the book spread libraries outside the confines of the abby. To have a bookshelf 3 foot by 4 foot filled with books would have been considered unimaginable wealth in the 15th century. About this amount was what started the Library of Congress through the donation of Thomas Jefferson.
What happened? I asked my students again. Slowly they were getting it. People within families, groups of friends could share a book…. The Decameron, the Prince, the Bible, The Divine Comedy… and suddenly they had a common frame of reference, language, ideas which could be shared around the table. This broke the back of the church and lead to the reformation. It took a while, but ideas began to circulate into a newly founded intellectual middle class below the level of the nobles or the church. They grew in knowledge and understanding of ideas. Type was being set with periods and paragraphs. Texts were being translated into various tongues. The 18th century is the century of ideas over taking the political process. I had to remind my students that this object, the book, they wanted to learn how to make, bind, and beautify was responsible for the revolution of 1776 in our country and the French Revolution of 1789. Newspapers too. We became free on the backs of the print maker’s and publisher’s good works spreading common sense.
And from there things exploded. Communities of knowledge in the 19th century developed the disciplines, the colleges and universities expanded, law etc…. all the while the book rose in popularity and literacy became more common among the leading countries of the world. This technology, the book, it’s binding and contents would be considered a great flame of inspiration across the globe in the 19th century. The Bible conquired the west in the US. Flames, tongues of fire from the heavens… a sacred object.
And yet there is still one more peice of amazement that this object brings to our world. And this took the lionshare of pulling teeth to get them to see it. It is what the internet does not have any longer. What makes this technology so sacred, so special. Hum… Finally someone said it, privacy. The interior world awakens when we read or relate to a book. I would go so far as to say, there were few that had that interior world or even reflected life until the book began to spread across the globe as a technology. Why is it we follow so few leaders from the turn of the last millenium? Jesus, Buddha, Mohamed? Because they created for themselves that interior world, and through their mystical experiences they provided the many with the few necessary answers at that time. But now, today, the interior experience, that sense of private reflection is the direct result of the book. It is created and developed because of the book in the nuero-networks of our grey matter. I venture to say that even the creative intuitive is advanced by the experience of reading for ourselves a host of materials. These students were artists because of the book. No longer do we need THE leader to tell us the answer… we get to question. The book is responsible for this also.
Privacy… this is something the book gave us as well. We can go off into our own room to write, publish this and then share that interior world with others through the vehicle of the book crossing miles of territory touching people we may never meet. This sacred communion with the author and the excitement of a world within whether it be on Mars, Dune, or the Earth was a necessary part of mine and many people’s development. We share common aspirations when we find people who have read the same thing in private. We ask, “what did you think?” What amazement when we discover difference and similarities as we discuss ideas. This is the result of a sacred object, the book.
The internet is not a sacred place of privacy. We have information, even the same books in there… but the interior is sacrificed to the commodification of ideas and knowledge to the advertisements and the manipulation of the web crawlers. The fights over the best search machine, the need to write the best tags so your ideas come up first in line. The quick flash of popularity of an event or idea that soon dies in the onslaught of more information coming next day. The book was slow, enduring, beautiful, textural, tactile. The internet is fast, overwhelming, bombastic, visual and ephemeral.
The reflected life gone to the needs of the gaining the greatest amount of attention in the least amount of time. We have become talking heads, visually stimulated sheep. The book, as art, as wonder, as sacred object does not need to be turned off when the plane takes off, it does not need to be charged up or plugged in to read, it does not need anything but the willing personal participation of the viewer wandering through its pages.
The book will never die. My students began, after an hour of this, to realize how much power placing their art and ideas in book form could be. How much they could change even a single viewer by creating these objects. It takes this kind of commitment to plan and execute a book…. but it is worth every mile, every step, every page turned in wonder and amazement. For this I am a book artist.