What Is a Book?

The “papers” of Toni Morrison can be accessed through a Princeton computer terminal. But where do these digital drafts end, and Beloved begin?

Anyone who remembers making the transition from typewriting to word processing has probably thrown away a fair number of floppy disks and jettisoned more than a few computers since then. Bad for the planet, yes. But it also poses particular challenges for the stewards and denizens of archives. We are still learning what it means to consult the “papers” of an important entity or individual when that becomes a metaphor for digital materials. A presidential library with its collection of tweets? A corporate archive with its residuum of labors in the so-called cloud?

Consider the “papers” of Toni Morrison at Princeton, which can be accessed on a dedicated terminal in the reading room. To do so is an occasion to ponder the traces that remain of the becoming of Morrison’s masterpiece Beloved, as well as the conditions of its creation. One finds an archive of documents scanned from paper, along with carefully curated versions of old word-processing files. Everything is there on the terminal, except the labels on the original floppy disks, which you’ll have to request from storage to examine. The becoming of Beloved survives in bits and bobs, not to say BLOBs (binary large objects). It reveals itself to inquiring minds only if they take exquisite care to parse the surviving of that becoming.

What, then, is a book? Examining the “papers” like those of Morrison at Princeton allows Matthew G. Kirschenbaum to offer bibliographical answers in Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage. The “bitstreams” of Kirschenbaum’s title refer to the data that preservation archivists extract from outdated storage media—your floppy disks and hard drives, for example—in the hopes of salvaging materials created with now-obsolete software and saved in now-obsolete file formats. Watery metaphors abound: Kirschenbaum sees bitstreams rippling through today’s publication workflow, the multiple steps and agencies by which an author’s digital files get turned into finished, saleable items. To the extent that these items now include so many one-click purchases and e-books for download, ours is indeed an age of “digital liquidity,” as Mark McGurl writes in Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon.

Like mirror-image twins separated at birth, Kirschenbaum and McGurl bring bibliographical and sociological methods to bear on contemporary American literature. In 2009, McGurl’s The Program Era completely re-envisioned postwar fiction in connection with the rise of university creative writing programs. Then Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes arrived in 2016 to like effect, re-envisioning literary history in connection with the advent not of curricular programming but of computer programming and the killer app that we have all learned to euphemize as “word processing.”1

Kirschenbaum’s book is an enhanced version of his 2016 A. S. W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography. The lectures are named after an American book collector and philanthropist, who might have defined a book as the surprisingly intricate outcome of more and less coordinated human labors. Following this definition, the first folios of Shakespeare that Rosenbach purchased would be among the most complicated. Rosenbach had to account for the work of authors and compositors, pressmen and booksellers. Today, though, Kirschenbaum’s remit includes computers—how they work, as well as the oversized roles they have come to play in the culture and business of books.

Morrison’s “bitstreams” seem bewildering enough. But those of William H. Dickey and Kamau Brathwaite each present additional wrinkles for literary history. Toni Morrison had an assistant who did the word processing, but these poets went further, using first-generation Macintosh computers themselves. Dickey created an oeuvre of hypertext poems that went unpublished during his lifetime. Brathwaite, meanwhile, used desktop publishing to create what he called his signature Sycorax Video Style, a font-and-page design that he had trouble getting his publishers to even attempt reproducing in print.

The surviving of the becoming of Beloved is welcome, especially because it illuminates the novel published to such acclaim in 1987. But Dickey’s and Brathwaite’s are literary efforts that have remained largely under wraps, at risk of joining untold “archival silences and violences.” Kirshenbaum takes readers through a lot of detective work to recover what he can, following the bitstream (in the case of Dickey, for instance) across multiple devices and formats and through a sea of glitches to arrive ultimately at executable emulations made publicly available today by the Internet Archive. Are these Dickey’s “original” hypertext poems? Yes, but.

Not all readers will have the patience to follow the specific steps between Dickey’s long-ago Macintosh and today’s JavaScript versions at archive.org, but they are hardly immaterial. Likewise the steps by which books and e-books arrive in our hands today.

A book nowadays is likely to have left its author’s computer to become a bunch of digital assets in Adobe InDesign. These digital assets are then published to e-book formats and onto paper, Kirschenbaum explains, in a globe-spanning process that might involve a specialized logistics firm, designer, and distributor in the United States, plus a paper mill and printer somewhere in Asia.

A book contains multitudes, Kirschenbaum has it. And, so it seems, to multitudes a book returns: as readers take it up within an effulgent media landscape where it shares “deep ontological commitments and compatibilities with other media” and participates in “the same technologies and infrastructures and economy.” Books in this sense are becoming “bookish media,” part of a transmedia complex native to our era of platform capitalism.2

Now, books are just widgets in the grand scheme of things.

Kirschenbaum tests this idea of “bookish media” on just one novel: J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s 2013 novel S. But McGurl’s corpus contains hundreds. While Kirschenbaum has been busy sleuthing about and amid bitstreams, McGurl has—thanks to Amazon—been reading what he convincingly calls more than his fair share of contemporary fiction. Much of this is admittedly “bad,” and not a little of it published by aspiring authors themselves via Kindle Direct Publishing.

Jeff Bezos started Amazon back in 1995 to “disintermediate” the book market, or so the dot-com craze taught us to say. Now Amazon is an “everything store,” an outrageously profitable intermediator deluxe. Amazon.com is the world’s 11th most trafficked website, according to Alexa (an Amazon company), although this figure does nothing to capture the footprint of Amazon Web Services, its cloud-computing subsidiary (hosting a big share of the web itself). Brick-and-mortar retail has tanked, while trucks and boxes abound, streaming out from Amazon “fulfillment centers”—the enormous warehouses where harried employees pick and package for delivery.

Now, books are just widgets in the grand scheme of things. And that makes e-books (after Amazon introduced its Kindle in 2007) widgets optimized.

What has been the result of all of this for the novel, asks Mark McGurl? To offer an answer, he must flirt with ambition on a Bezos-like scale. Like The Program Era before it, Everything and Less offers a sprawling account of the contemporary literary field, now being remade according to the ethos of the megacorporation.

What that means, according to McGurl, is that writing has become a form of customer service, while reading a form of self-care, the repetitious “fulfillment” of what are ultimately unfillable consumer wants. McGurl’s theory of the novel (impossible to encapsulate here) is a romp, keyed to his compelling account of the genre system as it is being driven by Amazon and refined by Kindle Direct Publishing.

Genre fiction, such as the mystery or the western, is (as it has always been?) the key to the novel, including what we call “literary fiction.” Only now genre is divisible into an exquisite array of niche forms: “adult baby diaper lover” erotica, for instance, or the “alpha billionaire” romance. McGurl’s tendency to read novels as allegories of the industrial conditions of their own production makes the alpha billionaire loom large (ahem, Bezos). And he returns repeatedly to the example of E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2011).


Books after the Death of the Book

By Matthew Kirschenbaum

Capitalism and the novel share a long history. Their latest chapter is bleak, in McGurl’s telling. For all of the unparalleled superabundance of fiction to enjoy, time is short. The megacorporation is selling our time back to us—reading time, “quality” time—as it continues to interpolate every facet of our existence.

Sure, Amazon has its retro brands: a brick-and-mortar store (Whole Foods), even a newspaper (Bezos owns the Washington Post). Perhaps literature is simply one, too? If Kirschenbaum is more sanguine than this, it’s because his talents lie in digging for literary heritage amid the fragments that remain.


This article was commissioned by Leah Priceicon

  1. Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard University Press, 2009); Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Harvard University Press, 2016).
  2. Kirschenbaum is using “bookish” in a different sense than Jessica Pressman in her recent Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age (Columbia University Press, 2020), which he is careful to cite.
Featured Image: Photograph of a Tandon 5.25" Floppy Disk Drive by Tony Duell / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)