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"Whatness of Bookness", by Philip Smith

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This is the third in a series of letters concerning the book arts
and the internet. The first was written by Chris Partridge was
posted to the list and can be read at
Peter Verheyen's reply can be read in the Summer 1996 issue of the
Designer Bookbinders Newsletter. In his letter he made a comment
about the "Whatness of Bookness" to which Philip has this reply. I
thought it was especially important and interesting in light of all
the discussions we've had online about what is a book and
discussions which I've been having with others.

Below is the full, unabridged text.


The Whatness of Bookness

     Thank you, Peter Verheyen, for your useful information on the
bookbinding content of the Internet (DBNL No.95). I wish we all were
'on line'. There is however one item you ,mentioned and that
concerns the discussions on the "Whatness of Bookness" within DB.
Actually there is very little discussion in print on this topic in
bookbinding circles; most of it seems implicitly to be within the
artists' books area and between the makers of book objects. I coined
the term 'bookness' in the 1970's (after reading in James Joyce's
Ulysses of the 'horseness of horses' - the whatness of horses - this
led me to coin it as 'the whatness of the book' or 'bookness'), and
I have written and spoken about it elsewhere, with various updates
of understanding of the issue. Some references to 'bookness'
appeared in my article in DB Review No.14 1979; in my introduction
to the catalogue Modern British Bookbinding in 1985; in an essay in
A Bookbinders' Florilegium produced by John Chalmers (HRHRC Texas,
1988). More recently a note appeared appended to my essay on
Understanding the Physical Book Arts in The Private Library Journal
6:2, dated Summer 1993; in Umbrella magazine shortly after that, and
in lectures in the USA and Canada in 1995. The following is a
slightly revised version of the note to my essay:
     Bookness: The qualities which have to do with a book. In its
simplest meaning the term covers the packaging of multiple planes
held together in fixed or variable sequence by some kind of hinging
mechanism, support, or container, associated with a visual/verbal
content called a text. The term should not strictly speaking include
pre-codex carriers of text such as the scroll or the clay tablet, in
fact nothing on a single leaf or planar surface such as a TV screen,
poster or hand-bill.
     'Bookness' is however being stretched to include forms which
carry a digitalized or electronic text such as a CD, a hard disk or
a microchip, or miscellaneous forms such as spirals of paper with
continuous text, or pyramids, dodecahedrons and other geometric
multiplanar forms (which could also have text inscribed on them). I
would not describe all these things as having the quality of
bookness or being strictly covered by the definition. A blank book
is still a book, but a blank dodecahedron or unmarked spiral of
paper is not a book, it is a dodecahedron etc. A text is a text and
not a book, but any other object one likes to imagine may perhaps be
its conveyance. A text can be inscribed on anything but this does
not make it a book, or have the quality of bookness, even as a
scroll retains its scrollness without any text on it. A teddy bear
with text on it is not a book! The book is not the text, although it
is traditionally associated with it, and these two elements appear
often to be mistaken for the same thing. The book is the hinged
multi-planar vehicle or subs!rate on which texts, verbal, or tactile
(the latter would include braille and other relief or embossed
effects, found objects, pop-ups) maybe written, drawn, reproduced,
printed or assembled.
     The large imposed sheets on which texts are printed before
folding into quires or signatures are not yet in book form (the
qualities of bookness have not yet been imparted to them); nor to
microfilm or microfiches by which book texts may be scanned be
described as having bookness. They would be considered in the single
planar form as on a video monitor (or a painting for example), but
when the same text is arranged into book form it then taken on the
qualities of boo kness. It is questionable whether something becomes
a book by being called such. The notion that an artist may call
anything he likes a 'work of art' or a 'book', because he says so,
is the extreme of sloppy thinking and contravenes everything we
regard as leading to truth, notwithstanding Marcell Duchamp!
     In a story by Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451, there is a group of
people who, in order to save them, memorise books, and are called
"walking books"! Other similarly claimed substitutes abound in
so-called book-artists' jargon, but the memories of books are not
yet in book form, and so cannot be called books or have bookness.
One could say however that a pack of Tarot cards does have bookness.
It functions as a working group of loose-leaf planar surfaces with
related images conveying textual matter in pictorial form.
Traditional knowledge has it that the Tarot is in fact a
philosophical treatise. The planes of a book have a necessary
relationship or they simply become a collection of arbitrary planes
for which a book format is not essential for the conveyed meaning.
Many arbitrarily devised objects such as chewed or dissolved texts
in bottles, etc., may or may not be art objects, but they are not
objects with bookness. The book-maker's art should be distinguished
from the art-maker's book. The book is generally thought of as a
compact, conveniently portable mobile object (although there can be
giant books, made of any material). The book, as book, has multiple
planes because all the text or material it contains would be too
unwieldy in a single planar form. There are book-like objects or
appearances and object-like books, but that is a different story.
     If anyone wishes to quote me with this (in its entirety please)
on the Internet or a Web-site page I give copyright permission to do

  Philip Smith 1996

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>>Drink and be merry, for our time is short and death lasts forever<<

Peter D. Verheyen                                   <wk> 315.443.9937
Conservation Librarian                             <fax> 315.443.9510
Syracuse University Library          <email> pdverhey@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Syracuse University               <www> http://web.syr.edu/~pdverhey/
Syracuse, NY 13244             <listmgr> Book_Arts-L@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx


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