January 27, 2012 by Amanda Visconti

Hack Books: Hack What?

Cross-posted from the Technoromanticism Seminar Blog.

I spent my bus ride home thinking about what it might mean to hack a book. I've seen beautiful sculptures made out of books (like these: one two three four) as well as more readable, but still fundamentally remixing acts of book hacking in the form of "altered books" like A Humument and Jonathan Safran Froer's deliberately altered The Tree of Codes. Even more than book art, however, thinking about designing digital editions of paper books has helped me start noticing the individual mechanics of the vehicle, and it feels like outlining just what a book does is a good step toward making it do things it "shouldn't" (i.e. hacking). Although we're not talking about digital literature yet, it could be useful to contrast books on-screen and off if we want to start pointing to what makes a book work (or, you can check out this "Medieval Help Desk" video and think about the happy differences between scroll and book!).

Matt Kirschenbaum's article “Bookscapes: Modeling Books in Electronic Space”* argues that contrasting books with their on-screen counterparts helps us call out the specific features important to the analog form because "books on the screen are not books, they are models of books"--and a model is made to be hacked and analyzed. Matt's article offers a nice starting point for thinking about the features of books, identifying five affordances specific to the book:

  1. simultaneous random access and sequential ordering,
  2. volumetric (three-dimensional) storage space,
  3. finity/boundedness,
  4. the comparative possibilities offered by two facing pages (think of Folger student Shakespeare editions), and
  5. writeability (who hasn't wished they could jot down notes on the PDF they're reading online?).

As we look at how Blake hacks the book, can we add to Matt's list of book affordances? In addition to broad characteristics, we might list specific elements such as the datedness of page numbering on the Nook or the (un?)necessary pause when "flipping" pages on a Kindle. Why were these technologies useful in books, and awkward (or nostalgic) in e-books?

*Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “Bookscapes: Modeling Books in Electronic Space”. Human-Computer Interaction Lab 25th Annual Symposium. May 29, 2008.