- Books with BodiesNarrative Progression in Chris Ware’s Building Stories
On the brink of the end of paper, I was attracted to the idea of a book that can’t forget it has a body.—Jonathan Safran Foer, in an interview by Steven Heller
This epigraph, quoting Foer’s statement about his Tree of Codes (2010), voices anxiety concerning the loss of books’ corporeality. The massive tide of book digitization projects and the surge of audiences who consume texts on screens of computers, tablets, and smartphones provide the immediate context for such a statement.1 Indeed, Google Print, now known as Google Books, when formally launched in 2004, added greater visibility to digitization projects that had been under way since the 1990s. These databases, hosted digitally, have since tried to reproduce information previously contained within a physical object—the book. Despite dissenting voices from various quarters, the digitization projects have only grown in their scope over the years.
However, in the “deep time of media,” to use the title [End Page 75] of Siegfried Zielinski’s influential media archaeological study (2006), there is another, deeper implication in Foer’s statement. Through our literary and cultural history, the materiality of books was frequently overlooked even preceding the popularity of digitization. In other words, books with bodies were ubiquitous in the print culture, and therefore those bodies rarely received special attention. The bodies of books remained vehicles for disseminating knowledge but were not understood as an indispensable part of the content they circulated. Thus, when contemporary narrative fictions draw attention to the corporeality of books, they not only respond to the emergence of digital practices of production and reception but also to the practice of undermining the extent to which books’ bodies structured communication through the first five hundred years of the print culture.2 In fact, digitization projects frequently borrow visual and terminological properties from physical book-objects and thereby acknowledge the far-reaching influence of “books” in shaping information.3
Affordances and constraints of the book’s body underlie forms of narrative fiction. Steve Tomasula observes that the history of the novel is also the history of information design (2012). Usually, the structure of the discourse, the sequence in which the narrative is presented in a text, overlaps with the form of the book; the beginning, middle, and end of the narrative discourse visually and materially correspond to the beginning, middle, and end of the physical book. This convention, in turn, influences reading practices. Even as Peter Stallybrass (2002) observes that the codex replaced the scroll in ancient cultures because the book form enabled random access, modern readers do not require special prompts to begin reading a narrative (as opposed to a dictionary, ledger, or encyclopedia) from the first pages of the book and move onward from there.4
However, when authors such as Foer and Tomasula experimentally disrupt the conventional book design, latent possibilities for reorganizing the narrative discourse also surface. Furthermore, like Foer, Tomasula also turns to the “body,” not only of the book but also the human body, for vital organizing principles, and his novel, vas (2002), foregrounds this threefold analogical relation among the book-object, the human body, and the novel form.5 In narrative theory, the implication [End Page 76] of this threefold analogy remains unexplored. Daniel Punday (2003), while propounding a “corporeal narratology,” suggests that ways of thinking about the human body shape plot, character, and settings of narrative fictions. However, the analogous configuring basis, the book’s body, does not emerge through Punday’s formulations. Thus, in light of the emergence of narrative fictions, disseminated through books that insist on the irreducibility of their bodies, a reconsideration of the relation among books, bodies (of books as well as human beings), and narrative form is necessary.
The book’s body emerges as a topos in narrative fictions at the interface of print and digital cultures.6 These fictions may or may not be born digital, but they insist on being engaged in print, which, in turn, reinstates the relationship of printed books with the bodies of readers who physically hold them and turn their pages. Depending on the manner in...