analog rights management

Our first bookmaking class met last night, and I think I’m going to like it. Being a student is good practice for teachers.

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?

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7 thoughts on “analog rights management

  1. Will do, Matt. Thanks for the suggestion.
    Library call number: Z685 .P48 1999
    I’ve also seen this remaindered for cheap at a local bookstore.

  2. I have no idea how to answer your questions. But the third to last paragraph called to mind a book I’m reading which suggests that thought is actually debate, that we’re not autonomous when we think (or write) we’re actually two (or more) people totally yelling at each other.

  3. Don’t have much in the way of responses to these very interesting questions you pose here, but I wanted to say this bookmaking class sounds totally cool. I’m jealous, and am thinking about looking around to see if there’s something similar offered ’round my parts.

  4. If you haven’t seen this, take a look. It’s an online record of a 2002 book exhibit at Princeton on hand-bound books. The exhibit is the first link on the list:
    Maybe it will give you some ideas for your class, G2. I particularly love the girdle book and would love to see an medieval ms illustration of a friar walking around with a devotional book tucked into his belt.

  5. Joe, but even if we have a conversation in our heads, aren’t we still having a conversation with ourselves? What’s the book you referenced?
    Scrivener, I think it’s going to be a great class, and I would guess there’s a similar opportunity for you in the ATL area.
    G1, thanks for the link, and you’ve got the right idea: I’m eager to re-create some of the bibliographic effects of handmade books that we no longer find so often in the age of the machine-made.

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