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The Whatness of Bookness, or What is a Book.

Written by Philip Smith in response to a letter from Peter Verheyen to the Editor of the Designer Bookbinders Newsletter concerning "Bookness". The article can also be found in the Book_Arts-L Archives.

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 1970s (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 so.

© Philip Smith 1996

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