Saturday, November 26, 2011

Gary Frost’s "Future of the Book" book

To describe Gary Frost as the influential, emeritus conservator from the University of Iowa does not quite do him justice. Gary Frost is part conservator, part futurist, and part mystic (to name just a few of his parts.) Under his name on the title page of my copy his recent book I wrote “book shaman.”

Upon retiring he has very quickly come out with two books Adventures in Book Conservation: An Album of Investigations and Future of the Book: A Way Forward (both available from Iowa Book Works). I’ve only read the Future of the Book one, yet.

For those who read Frost’s blog, also called Future of the Book, the print book Future of the Book: A Way Forward will be familiar territory. The fact that much of this content can now be read both on screen and now in print goes to the heart of what Frost discusses in his book – the interplay between print reading and screen reading.

I once took a course on the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was a fascinating class but I found myself taking very few notes. My explanation of why this might be the case was that while note taking tends to move in a very linear direction, the professor’s thoughts and communications were better described as an interlocking web where everything was connected to everything else (at least so it seemed to the students).

Reading Frost reminds me of this class experience. In this book, a detailed description of the elegant parabola of the spine of a sewn-board volume (p. 43) is only pages away from a discussion of the “functions of self-authentication of print and self-indexing of electronic text.” (p. 46)

Frost’s world of the book is vast and detailed and it’s all interconnected. Following him as he traverses those connections is a challenging delight or a delightful challenge. There were times during my reading I found myself lost and sometimes the intricacies of his language eluded me, but I would eventually once again find his path and enjoy the adventure.

This book is Frost’s rumination on a topic of huge importance to today’s library community (whether it knows it or not) the interplay of the print book and the digital text. While he is a print apologist, it not because he feels digital is inferior, but rather his is a response to the trend within the library world to look away from print and see digital as a replacement for print.

I was intrigued to see early on in the book that he compares the transition from the print deliver of the book to screen delivery not to the creation of the printing press, as is so often done, but to the movement from primary orality to print. The scale of the change is that great. This shift should force us, as it does Frost, to give closer examination to both print and digital – how do they do what they do and what are the characteristics of the reader experience for each. “Display of a given title to both screen and print is not equivalent either in attributes of the different delivery formats or in their roles of interaction.” (p. 16)

Frost’s main argument is that digital does not replace print. Frost’s defense of print is not based on nostalgia, or as is so common, the smell of old books, but on the unique attributes of the materiality and reading experience of print. “Contrasting functionalities of the paper and screen book do not converge, but they complement each other.” (p. 17) “Print attributes of content fixity, manual navigation, and persistent access across time all pair nicely with screen attributes of live content, automated search and navigation, cloud repository, and electronic delivery.” (p. 19)

And now, to give my reader a greater sense of the experience of reading Frost’s book born out of his web of knowledge, the subsequent chapter begins with a discussion of dexterity and brain size in early hominids. Yup, it’s all connected and you’ve just got to try and keep up.

In further advancing the of the print book/reader interaction Frost discusses various binding methods and observes the interplay of the actions of these bindings with the reader’s reading of the text. Of his beloved wooden board binding he writes,
“The mind is physically positions in the content and memory and insight both are augmented by the physical location of concepts. Fingering to initiate and complete page turnings points to the particular expressions or precepts that are read. Manual transmission of leverage from the board covers to the text is so responsive that it embodies comprehension and conclusive acts of learning.” (p. 41)
Oh, and then there’s several pages about the linotype – Frost loves the linotype, and find a way to naturally weave it into his web of the book.

In light of the recent discussion at GBW standards of Tomorrow’s Past and the Bonefolder’sBind-O-Rama “Artistically Reversible: Where Conservation and Art Meet” it was interesting to read Frost declare “I have often imagined that there can be deliberate recognition of artful book conservation treatments and some definitions of an aesthetic to guide the practice.” (p. 56) The book’s section covering an aesthetic approach to conservation (pp. 54-59) deserves some in-depth engagement which is more than will happen in this review. (I would love to see some others tackle the issues discussed in these pages.)

As mentioned, Frost’s book is titled Future of the Book: A Way Forward but within Frost’s labyrinthine web of the book, the way forward may not always be forward. It may sometimes lead us inward, or outward, to the left, or to the right, and often to places that we never imaged the book would take us.

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