Deciphering Physical Books

Deciphering Physical Books

“The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” by James Gleick happens to be one of many contemporary textual artifacts at my disposal as I write this but it seems to be the most substantial and could offer me the most information as a cultural artifact. This artifact is a trade paperback book produced by Vintage Books, a division of Random House. This edition was created in March of 2012.

“The Information” is a work of nonfiction, historical and scientific in nature. The form that it comes in speaks to that fact. The work is dense and text heavy the way a fiction book, intended moreso for pleasure reading, wouldn’t be. Images, tables, and schematics fill a good amount of its pages, contributing to the scientific aspect of the text. The cover is clean, attention-grabbing, even mesmerizing with its black and white hypnotist’s spiral. It gives an air of seriousness but interestingness the way a work of nonfiction’s cover usually does.

The paperback edition of this book was created in 2012. This tells us that trade paperback books haven’t changed much over the past six years as this looks like I could find it on the shelf of any Barnes & Noble. The front and back covers as well as the front and back of the first page are decked in the book’s accolades. It states clearly at the top of the cover that it was a national bestseller, the awards it was nominated for or won are listed, and quotes from publications across the country attest to its greatness. With these clues we are able to assertain that books (or at least nonfiction books) from this period need these accolades to cover its cover to boost its sales or credibility. The bar code on the back cover and the price listed as 18 American dollars and 24 Canadian ones tell us something about the economy in North America and the way things are sold and commodified.

The same way we could learn so much about the process of printing in the Bibliography section of our lab so can we learn a lot about the modern process of printing from modern books like “The Information”. Once upon a time paper would have imperfections in it and ruled lines that were results of the rags used to make it and the process of making it. Today the paper in a book is nearly perfect and milky white. Unlike the books from the days of the printing press where paper was folded into quartos or octavos today books aren’t marked for the sake of the printers but for the sake of the readers.

The many editions of Morse’s Geography that we looked at in class showed how one book stayed the same across many years and how it changed. Things like the introductions and the dedications or guided reading questions or maps change from edition to edition. Ads like those we saw in the Harlequin Romances are included but are removed in later issues. I even found a pressed flower in one edition. Things like the size of the books and the brown covers stay the same over time. With Gleick, a book only 7 years old, we don’t see the same plethora of editions that we do with Geography. This is mostly because “The Information” isn’t a textbook where information is subject to change based on time or new discovery but it is a set piece of nonfiction, so many editions aren’t necessary like with Morse’s Geography.

With the third section of our lab with the mystery canvassing books for traveling salesmen we see that these strange half books with the spines from the real books usually on the inside cover and steno pad paper in the back for people to sign up for subscriptions acted as teasers for the real, full length books. They almost acted as the short excerpts from books that we can read on the back cover or on Amazon today. My group could discern this much from these cultural artifacts the same way we can discern so much about our current culture by looking at another artifact like “The Information”.