Breaking the Book

Richard Rothaus recommended that I check out Laura Mandell’s Breaking the Book: Print Humanities in the Digital Age (2015) and his suggestion was a good one. Mandell’s short book is fashioned a manifesto, but it explores the impact that book culture has had on the humanities from the 18th to the 21st century. For Mandell, book culture exists at the intersection of the physical character of the book, and the various practices that grew up around the production and consumption of books. 

Her arguments are intricate and I probably can’t do them justice in a relatively short post, but she argues that the practices and conventions that emerged over the 19th century created a print culture that transformed how books appeared and how they produced meaning. By the 20th century, the consistent appearance of the book contributed to the authority of the printed word and the perceived value of the academic monograph (or even the academic article) as a marker of intellectual and scholarly achievement in the humanities. The physical appearance of the printed book and the emergence of mass-printed books and journals shaped the way that the words and arguments on their pages worked.

Mandell argued convincingly that books contributed to a kind of elite culture that distinguished itself from the spoken language. Over the course of the 18th century, printed books became more stable entities with authors making fewer changes to their texts between printings and readers no longer being an intimate circle who had the responsibility to comment upon, revise, and improve the printed texts for the authors. As print runs increased, the number of readers increased, and the familiarity between the author and his or her audience decreased, texts became more and more stable and acquired greater authority. The separation of the author from the audience contributed to a sense of distant, impartial, and dispassionate associated with the text. 

Our current preoccupations with the persistence and permanence of the books and texts is not somehow intrinsic in their form, but developed alongside practices of reading and printing. Any argument for the persistence and stability of print culture runs counter to the prevailing attitudes toward texts in our post modern era. We tend to see texts and sentences and words deriving meaning from their relationship with other texts, sentences, and words within similar discursive formations. In other words, while books convey as sense of permanence and immutability, the texts within them are anything but. Printed books, however, confuse this permeability of texts with the permanence of form, and this contributes to the myth that the humanities are set apart from everyday knowledge. That a book is somehow worth more than a conversation, a lecture, or any number of more ephemeral forms of communication. Mandell does a nice job demonstrating how the ossification of book culture over the course of the 19th century drove a wedge between popular attitudes toward the humanities and the emerging culture of professional academia. Academics used books to create enduring monuments to learning whereas popular culture was ephemeral and disposable. 

In the end, Mandell argues that digital practices and tools have already started to transform the nature of book culture and print humanities, but this book does not advocate for a kind of technological solutionism or celebrate a digital revolution. Instead, by establishing the context for the development of print culture,  Mandell undermines any notion that the print humanities needs book or even that books – as constituted by their development in the 18th and 19th centuries – have any singular claim to authority. In fact, digital reading practices that allow texts to be broken open, recombined, undermined, piled upon, distributed and disturbed, is one salutary step toward breaking the book and making the humanities more accessible. 

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