How Do Books Work?

I’ve been thinking a good bit about how books work lately for three reasons.

First, sometime this fall, North Dakota State University Press will publish a small tourist guide to the Bakken that I wrote with Bret Weber. Almost as soon as the manuscript went to NDSU, I began to think about producing a revised edition that expanded and complicated our description of the landscape. Tourist guides are interesting books because they have a tendency both to situated everything in the very narrow present of the visitor and to unfold the diachronic history of a place. As a result, they are both prone to obsolescence as well as interesting contributions to the very landscape they seek to produce. Anyone who has traveled with a 19th century Baedeker’s guide in hand knows the uncanny experience of seeing a historical landscape presented from a point in the past. For a century-old guide, this is endearing, for a guide that is just a year old, it’s annoying. I’d like to update my guide so that it better reflects the present realities in the Bakken while at the same time preserving the 2015 version of the text. 

More than that, I want to expand my discussion of the Bakken to bring it into sync with current conversations on petroculture, petrostates, local history, “prairie environmental history,” and the slow flurry of recent work on the Bakken. The challenge is how do I expand this book without compromising its essential integrity and creating a “frankenbook” that tries to do too many things all at once. 

Adding to this challenge, the book is going to be published as paper only. So any additions to the book will have to not only move between a cohesive text and a range of expanded content, but also between paper and, presumably, non-paper. As a start, I have a website.

My second project is along similar lines and focuses on Corinth Excavation Archaeological Manual. This book as it currently stands is a technical manual, but from the start a group of folks wanted to expand it into something a bit more dynamic, historical, and discursive. Because it’s an open document, anyone could take a swing at marking it up, but we have had this idea that we might invite a group of contributors to comment on the manual from various methodological, historical, and archaeological perspectives. We’d set up the manuscript in Hypothes.is and invite contributors.

Here the challenge is not so much how to create a platform for conversation, but how to extract the conversations and repackage it in an archivable and persistent format, and perhaps even as paper.

Finally, and the most challenging project, is a serialized publication of a series of limestone and terra-cotta figurines from an archaeological site on Cyprus. The plan initially was to publish a pilot of a few dozen 3D objects and catalogue entries, but it seems like that we’ll expand that. As a result, we are trying to figure out how to publish a catalogue and analysis as a serial way that preserves but the integrity of presentation. 

This project is in its early stages and has lots of details to work out, but these three projects together are pushing me to rethink how books work to create knowledge both on a granular level (e.g. how do you cross-reference objects in a serialized publication? And how do you control for subtle shifts in interpretation across various iterations of the book and exercise version control?) and on the conceptual level (e.g. books remain a kind of standard for scholarly achievement in many disciplines because they represent the mastery of a particular topic or body of evidence or argument. Do open books that evolve through time explicitly subvert that kind of standard?).

These ideas and issues will continue to percolate in my head over the next few months, so please stay tuned!

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