We are free to pursue whatever projects we like. I guess I went in assuming we would be receiving specific assignments, so I’ve had to think through possibilities. What I’ve realized is that I’m really interested in fasteners: devices that are used to keep a book closed, whether that’s a latch like on one of the Bibles I examined last summer, an elastic band like the one on my new little Moleskine notebook, or a cord like what’s attached to the Tibetan notebook I bought over a year ago. What appeals to me about these devices? Perhaps it’s the way in which they work against the familiar openess of books, acting as a kind of safeguard (even if only a symbolic one) against unauthorized uses.
I began to think, “What would it take to create an exact replica of one of these things?” Then I began to think, “What kinds of things did readers do with (or to) their books before they became so cheap and commonplace and before we had automated book production?” One of the above Bibles, for example, had been “hacked” at some point, by which I mean that someone took the traditionally bound Bible, split it in two, and then bound the two halves separately, but facing each other on a common backboard. The result was a book half as thick but twice as wide. My guess is that this alteration was done to fit into a particular pocket or satchel.
Users of electronic devices frequently hack them to see what kinds of non-authorized uses they can get out of them. As digital rights management technology gets more and more sophisticated (and as laws are passed to outlaw bypassing DRM), such hacking becomes more and more appealing, frankly.
Readers have long had the ability and inclination to alter their books, to make them say or do things other than what their creator intended. In some deep sense, this practice is perhaps a residue of oral culture, in which discourse exists only in conversation. Walter Ong calls writing “autonomous discourse” because it needs no interlocutor. In practice, however, we intervene in written discourse all the time, through writing marginal notes, underlining and highlighting key passages, and through altering the physical makeup of the book itself.
But how would history be different if the technology of the book had prevented such interventions? What if we were unable to try out new arrangements, to foreground different textual elements than those the author deemed most important?
Or to ask a question from a completely different angle: what elements of printed books might accurately be described (in a weird kind of back formation) as “analog rights management” features? How does the form of print seek to protect the integrity of the information it contains?