Wednesday, June 2, 2010

the end of the book

I've been reading a lot of stuff about how "print media" is at an end. I understand the points that folks are making about this from a technological and practical point of view - and I experience this transition to the electronic, myself, to a certain degree. But to this bibliophile who also reads his local paper every morning with his family at breakfast, I must say, it is a kind of sad prospect to me. It is a little odd to be a web logger who prefers to read (and edit) things on paper. Computers are still a tool to me, rather than a means of reading.

If a book is just a means of dispensing, storing and looking up information, then goodbye to it. If a book is work of art in itself, then, as with all forms of art, I think it would be truly sad to see it go. So my title is a play on words. Perhaps print media is over. But it may not mean the end of the book (as in its discontinuation) if we take time to take a look at the end of the book (what a book's telos is).

The Book of Kells is what "book" is meant to be.

The Book of Kells is not "print media." If print media must go the way of the Dodo, then I suppose I will survive it. But an illuminated manuscript is a work of art - and not printed.

In the west, ancient Christian art developed into stained glass windows on the one hand, and illuminated manuscripts, like the Book of Kells, on the other. Books are a Christian art-form. The book was invented as a means to preserve, teach, process (liturgically) and proclaim the Christian scriptures. Every literate culture has some means of preserving its writing. The codex predated Christianity in the ancient Mediterranean world. And codices are book-like in form. But the thing we call a book, when the word "book" is used to refer to a kind of material artifact that is paper or vellum bound between covers, is Christian. Its end is tied up in liturgical goals. A book is supposed to be beautiful in the same way that a church is supposed to be beautiful, and the robes of the altar party are supposed to be beautiful. Books are a liturgical art form: their end and goal is the glorification of the ultimate reality that Christians seek. The book as a means of glorifying utlimate reality thereby makes a statement as to the nature of that reality. So we shouldn't be surprised that books came out of a religious culture that claimed that God was "logos," word, narrative, story, reason, argument, logic, itself.

I am reminded of another project going on right now, the St. John's Bible:

I like and dislike the St. John's Bible. I dig the idea of not simply imitating ancient illuminated manuscripts but rather trying to bring illumination forward into the 21st century. But in this particular case it is often only the idea that I like. The actual execution of it (and you can here it in the word-choice of the illuminator himself in the video embedded, above) comes across as too romantic and self-involving on the part of the illuminator. Does "21st Century" mean inserting the modern, impermeable, individuated and consumerist "self" into the illumination? I don't mean to sound too critical, the St. John's Bible is lovely. And the illuminator amazing. But one of the key parts of ancient illumination in the west, as with iconography in the east, was the spiritual principle of humility as anonymity. As an art form, iconography and illumination are about the expression of something transcendent to the cosmos itself - they are not about the expression of the "self," or the individual artist (except, of course, paradoxically as a microcosm of the cosmos itself). Oh wells.

This whole post was inspired by a viewing of The Secret of Kells, which is a truly remarkable movie:

It is, for a movie, an example of the kind of art that I always hope that any form of art can aspire to: I wish there were more books like the Book of Kells, and more animated movies like the Secret of Kells. It is scintillating. The scenes where the main character is walking alone in the woods are amazing: the light shining through the moving trees above is rendered as patterns appearing within the form of the character himself who is rendered as kind-of semi-transparent. Amazing. The whole thing is so visually overwhelming that by half way through I just gave up trying to notice it all and I just let it wash over me. On top of all that, the movie celebrates the book as a religious art-form. At one point, the main character battles a supernatural enemy through his skills as an illuminator. I could go on and on but I won't. Needless to say, I will have to give this film multiple viewings.

Finally, I think that the print industry will survive, but I imagine that to do so it may have to go "specialty," that is to say, printing stuff that takes advantage of the art-form of the book and that which is art-like in print itself. To sell books, they will have to be more than information storage and retrival. They will have to be beautiful. They will have to be things that you wouldn't want on a computer screen. When I think about that, I think of Taschen, check them out. They produce books with rich images, like that below, that you wish you could see on a beautiful clay paper page, rather than on my web log:

Thanks for following. Peace