Deciphering Physical Books

Lab 7: Deciphering Physical Books


This week we had multiple interesting discussions about physical texts and how specific types of books go beyond its content and represents ideas about the reader. In other words, a book doesn’t just give the reader information, but a book gives the public (true/false) information about the reader. For example, Jane Austen praises the octavo “Essay on the Military Police and Institutions of the British Empire” by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers in her letter to her sister yet criticizes individuals who prefer quartos. She explains, “They will not understand a man who condenses his thoughts into an octavo.” Austen judges the books by its form, its physical length, and develops opinions of individuals who either read quartos or octavos. It’s nothing new to judge a person by their material goods and books have been at the forefront of those adjudications for a very long time. I think we tend to judge books because they often hold a vast amount of information (whether it is fiction or non-fiction) and it takes time/effort to read them. We judge each other by our books because it can show what type of subjects we give time to and enjoy…which brings me to an interesting subject that we spoke about in class, the habit of displaying books in our homes.

Books have become a type of decoration, a way to display intelligence even, but in my opinion, the books we display on our shelves have no real representation of our intelligence. I have no way of telling if someone has actually read the books on their bookshelf. I’m also quite sure no one would admit to only buying books to collect dust/praise so I can guarantee I’ve been lied to on multiple occasions on which books were actually read. I admit, many of the books on my shelf are untouched and I’m prone to a few white lies myself. I believe Austen had a point when she describes her feelings toward certain books as “enormous great stupid thick quarto volumes which one always sees in the breakfast parlour.” The forms of a book, like the forms of our phones, computers, cars, and any technological innovation are forever subjects of judgment. It seems like judging others is one of humankind’s many primitive instincts.

The Modern Book

The Kindle is as modern as a book can be today. I’m sure Apple is working on a holographic novel right now, but at least in my own life, the Kindle is as contemporary as I can handle. It’s a thin, small rectangle with thousands of digital pages inside resembling the physical form of a novel. The screen displays pages that would be seen in a book. There are page numbers and text and you slide the screen as if you’d be turning a physical page. It’s essentially Skeuomorphism. The major cultural meaning is the fact that it’s paperless and the product itself is environmentally friendly. I say “the product” because I’m not sure what the production process is and how friendly it is to the factory workers or the environment, but when I speak about the object itself, the Kindle does not use paper. You have thousands of books at your fingertips without the worry of supporting the disappearance of forests. It represents a large cultural shift where many people have begun to care about our planet and how we alter our lives to support the climate. Individuals have taken a major liking in minimalism as well, turning to kindles or other reading technology to live a lifestyle where material objects are not at the forefront of their homes.

Thinking back to the artifacts in our lab, the most common theme is that we are looking at information in some type of book form. They vary in terms of language, subject, use, age, and material, but all of the artifacts, including the Kindle, convey information through text. Even the Kindle’s form resembles that of a novel. Compared to station 2 where we looked at Geography textbooks, the Kindle is similar in size. They’re both small and meant to be traveled with, unlike the German folio I analyzed at station 1. At station 3 we had a mystery text. As I studied the books further I realized they were cheap examples of luxury textbooks that door to door salesmen would show customers. On the back pages, you signed up for a subscription to receive the real volumes later on. On the Kindle, you can sample books before purchasing them. Often, there are a few chapters of a new book at the end of another book, often by the same author. We see similar advertisement techniques used today that were popular in the 1800-1990s, just through different mediums as technology advances.