- Reprinting “Azaleas”:A Meditation on Volume and Volumes
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I’m going to go out on a limb. We may be heading into a new era for books. People will say that it’s here, already. But, really, it’s not. We still design our screens to look like pages, materializing our texts in page-like shapes that organize the alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing systems that we have been using for millennia. We think of books as a collection of planes, of flat pages. This despite the fact that we call them volumes and they, the pages and the books, have it—volume. The same can be said of computers that make our books, when we recognize them, the computers, as physical objects. Circuitry arranged as motherboards occupies space, as does a computer’s memory, which can be partitioned, yes, into volumes. The machines that we use to compose, compile, and then rip (raster image process) the files that instantiate the plates that sit on the drums of offset presses pressing ink onto the sheets of the books that we (still!) read also show us our “books” on screens. Yet, as Matthew Kirschenbaum points out, books on screen are not books; they are models of books.
This is confusing. So many of the interactions and procedures that create our models and our books—aesthetic, logical, computational, physical—are hidden from view. What gets lost in all of these unseen transformations and translations? What gets carried across the myriad forms? How might the losses affect the ways we assess [End Page 367] significance, discern meaning, or simply take pleasure in a textual experience? It could be that something is gained, the same way that pigment on canvas can gain a power to captivate when removed from the rumpled chaos of a small room and hung on an empty, well-lit wall of a big one. Perhaps it has something to do with who we are at particular moments, that person captured by shape and color for points in time, or that other person who wants to know how those particular shapes made by those particular pigments came to hang on that particular empty wall, that person who wants (with all of the word’s carnal associations) to know what they mean, and why they enthrall. I suspect the materials exert themselves too, and are as as protean as we are. One moment the pulse of an electrical charge, the next ink on paper laid down by a hand, a nozzle, or a plate. Where does the choreography end and the text begin? How can we know the dancer from the dance? And what happens if we or our materials cut in (or out) unexpectedly during the gambol that skips impulse toward ink painted onto paper? How often is error opportunity? How often is chance? The way we frolic is particular to us and has a history. A good friend suggests that much of this may have to do with wonder, which seems right, since wonder is about thinking and curiosity, but also awe. There are those poems and those stories that evoke such a deep desire to know them, to think about everything that they are and have been, that insist we pause to marvel at their presence. Such pleasure in wonder. How are they not other than they are? These new questions resemble many old ones. Sometimes they are even the same. But they seem essential to consider again since we and our textual legacies are a briar we train toward the future uncertain much of the time about how we grow.
If we were to lend volume, which is to say space and shape, to the manifold unseen procedures of our volumes, what kinds of shoots would our bramble unfurl? Would the new space prompt our species of briar to evolve, adapt, and survive or head it toward extinction? If we were going to gamble on the former, for which of the unseen actors in the constellations of individuals and various [End Page 368] communities, physical materials and their states...