How printed books are remediating the internet

For as long as I remember, a discussion about the “death of books” has been raging. By 2010, newspapers were being flooded with apocalyptic articles spelling doom for print as well as traditional publishers, booksellers and even authors. However, it is now 2017 and books are still doing great. In fact, according to the PA Statistics Yearbook, in 2016 sales of printed books increased, while sales of eBooks declined. There are several possible explanations for why the tables have turned around so much in so little time, but I suggest we look at this matter from the perspective of remediation. Similarly to the music and film industries, the publishing industry has had to adapt itself to compete with the internet, new digital technologies and new types of users. I believe publishers started to realize the potential of printed books only after they started to understand the potential of the internet, and of digital devices and platforms that are available to everybody. They have begun to fight the digital menace either by emphasizing the books’ unique features or by combining them with features usually associated with digital media, i.e. by remediating it.

Let us start by defining “remediation”. The term was introduced in 1999 by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in their book Remediation: Understanding New Media. In it, they argue that all media are linked and that new media always spur from older media, as essentially new media are created by remediating older media. Remediating is more than just repurposing or giving new meaning to older media – it means taking some or all of its characteristics to create something new, improved, usually more technologically advanced. As the authors explain it:

“The word [remediation] derives from the Latin remederi – «to heal, to restore health». We have adopted the word to express the way in which one medium is seen by our culture as reforming or improving upon other”. (Bolter and Grusin, 1999, p.59)

By this logic, every medium was invented by remediating another one or several other ones: for example, the internet remediated books (among other things); before that, books remediated manuscripts; manuscripts remediated other kinds of scrolls and stone tablets; and these ancient containers of written text remediated oral stories. We’re still not sure what oral stories remediated – perhaps real life? Bolter and Grusin say:

“New digital media are not external agents that come to disrupt an unsuspecting culture. They emerge from within cultural contexts, and they refashion other media, which are embedded in the same or similar contexts”. (1999, p.19)

The concept of remediation stems from European post-structuralism theories, like Derrida’s “all interpretation is reinterpretation”, and particularly from Marshall McLuhan’s research, which could be summarized by his most famous quote: “The medium is the message”.

The most interesting aspect of remediation, however, is that it “operates in both directions” (Bolter and Grusin, 1999, p.48). If all media are connected, allowing new media to adapt and improve older media, then the opposite must be also be true: older media are capable of appropriating characteristics intrinsic to new media and incorporate them in their own unique features. As Bolter and Grusin argue:

“Ours is a genealogy of affiliations, not a linear history […] Older media can also remediate newer ones. […] No medium, it seems, can now function independently and establish its own separate and purified space of cultural meaning”. (1999, p.55)

For instance: videogames clearly remediated films; like films, they are visual narratives, only improved by their interactivity. Films, however, have started to embrace some of the characteristics of videogames, such as making use of computer graphics and first-person view. The same phenomenon can be observed in the publishing industry.

Nowadays, there is something intrinsically different about the way people read. We spend most of our time online, or at least using some kind of digital technology like a smartphone or a tablet. Reading on one of these devices is a completely different experience than reading a printed book — and even that experience has changed. What we’re doing most of the time these days isn’t reading, it’s hyper reading (Sosnoski, 1999). Hyper reading is a strategy for reading in the digital age: it is fragmented, non-linear and involves scanning and reading in an F pattern. Consider how you search the web: you rarely visit just one website; in fact, you will probably end up reading several web pages, maybe even at the same time, comparing them side-by-side, looking up images and videos, following links to other pages or interrupting the search to search for something else. You won’t be reading entire websites — you probably won’t even read a single text in its entirety. Something similar is likely to happen as you read a book, whether it’s physical or digital: you may stop to look at an incoming text message or to go online and look up something mentioned in the book, such as a place, or even another book. Hence, even the formerly simple reading experience has changed in the digital age.

How can publishers adapt to this (r)evolution in the way we read? Some have begun to emulate hyper reading. In this way, they take something that is only possible digitally, and transform it into something that can only be done physically. Thus, they take advantage of the characteristics of printed books, namely their materiality, and improve them by adding a characteristic intrinsic to digital reading, like non-linearity. They are, in a way, remediating the internet.

There are some “extreme” examples I could mention – such as the Library of the Printed Web – but I would rather pick one example that is less experimental and closer to what we actually think of, when we think of “books”: the new English edition of The Book of Disquiet, published back in March by Half Pint Press and retitled The Box of Disquiet. The original was written by Fernando Pessoa– an important Portuguese poet of the 20th century– and is a singular book for it was found many years after his death, in a trunk, scattered throughout a myriad of different containers such as single paper sheets, notebooks, napkins and other objects that Pessoa wrote on whenever he had an idea. This book has always challenged publishers, as it is impossible to organize the writings in a sequential order – it is impossible to determine their dates, and their nature is very philosophical and diary-like, so there isn’t even a story to be reconstructed. However, this new edition solves that problem. It consists of a wooden box, inside of which the reader will find a bundle of papers together with other objects, like playing cards, photos, bookmarks, etc, each with a different excerpt printed on it. It is, therefore, a similar experience to the one you would have had when opening Pessoa’s trunk for the first time, as well as the closest you can get to reading the book in its original format. Tim Hopkins, the editor, claims the objective of this edition is “to restore some disorder to the text”, therefore giving back some of its authenticity. The reader discovers it in a non-linear way, much like the author wrote it, and much like reading on the internet. The difference is that if the reader were to read a digital version of the book, her experience would not be the same; there would be no physical interaction, and without materiality most of its exploration and artistic appeal would be lost.

In the case of The Box of Disquiet, the container makes the book. It is inseparable from its content, for it plays a crucial part in relaying its message in a truthful and accurate way (“the medium is the message”). It is a shining example of how an older medium can remediate a new one that remediated it first. Moreover, this edition won the Minnesota Center for Book Arts 2017 prize. It completely rearranges the classic text in a new, modern fashion, revitalizing it and proving that print still has a lot more to offer.

“The double logic of remediation suggests that in our heterogeneous culture, no one technology is likely to eliminate the others”. (Bolter and Grusin, 1999, p.225)

Marcia Sousa