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Book Review: The Future of the Page edited by Peter Stoicheff and Andrew Taylor

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How does one read a book whose fundamental premise is its own demise? It feels a bit like visiting an elderly relation in the old folks' home. The conversation is at times awkward, at other times nostalgic and entertaining. After all, when someone (or something) has been around for a long time, it gathers to itself a good collection of tales to tell.

But eventually, one asks: is there anything for me to learn from all this talk? In my experience of these situations, the lessons never come from the talk; the talk is just nervous banter to avoid thinking about the inevitable. The valuable lessons happen in the silences; they take their substance from what remains unsaid. In some measure, that is true as well of The Future of the Page, a volume of essays edited by Peter Stoicheff and Andrew Taylor.

These essays took their beginning from a conference held in 2000 at the University of Saskatchewan. The conference and later reflection provided an opportunity for people who make their living by thinking about print media and culture to be intentional in approaching the transition from print to electronic media. As the title suggests, this is not concerned so much with the book as it is with the book's building block — the page. Historically, the page has emerged as a medium unto itself quite apart from the book, with its peculiar meanings and ideologies, limitations and functions. And it is the page which is the primary unit of information for most of today's Internet users.

Immediately, we confront the first puzzle not directly discussed within the book, but nevertheless obvious the instant we pick it up in our hands. This book is palpable. It is larger than a paperback. It is filled with illustrations. In fact, one chapter is printed on glossy paper. Why a book? Why not a website? Why not a collection of web pages?

The beginnings of an answer emerge from the opening essays which consider an earlier transition from one medium to another – the transition in the 15th century from illuminated manuscript to mass–produced page on a printing press. In some respects, the evolution of the printed page occurred as an organic process, determined perhaps by innate aesthetic preferences and an instinctual approach to our own cognitive needs. But in other respects, the printed page came to reflect the aims of those who controlled the means of production.

Early religious and legal texts were licensed exclusively to specific presses, often presses owned by academic institutions like Oxford University. Many of the conventions laid down by early printers, such as those relating to footnotes and marginal inscriptions, persist to this day and have assumed an authoritative force that is difficult to flout. The editors and most of the contributors to this book are likewise from academic institutions and subject to these long–standing expectations. In part, an academic's performance is measured by publishing history. Tenure and income depend upon it. But it is doubtful (from a university's point of view) that a paper is truly published if it is available only as electronic text. So if the contributors to The Future of the Page wish to benefit from their contributions, then they have to present their work as something more substantial, in a medium more "real."

Or it may simply be the case that 500 years of entrenched reading habits have not yet met the right catalyst to undo our literary inertia. The generation which has driven a revolution in the delivery and enjoyment of audio and video is not yet mature enough to have an impact upon the publishing industry. We have yet to witness amongst publishers the same sort of uproar that gripped the RIAA as teenagers around the world began to share audio files through Napster. But the publishing industry's day may yet arrive. Shortly after this book's release, Google announced a partnership with several major libraries to scan their collections as fully searchable text. As the use and architecture of the world wide web is increasingly determined by those (younger) people who have been weaned of or have never really felt attached to print media, the publishing industry will have no choice but to adapt. And it will have to begin by reconceptualizing the page. It is in this task that The Future of the Page may prove most valuable.

The essays which are most forward–looking are those considering work which, while still operating within the printed page, pushes the page to its limits. For example, Jerome McGann considers the very problem which Google would present after he had written his essay, by considering whether it even makes sense to produce digital archives of poetry. Because of the way poetry signifies its meaning, much of what counts in poetry appears merely as 'noise' in a marked up text of searchable information. What he claims for poetry also applies to most literary fiction. The reason, as he puts it, is that poeisis "tends to involve more broadly 'semiotic' rather than narrowly 'linguistic' materials." Or, to be more practical about it, Google may be engaged in a monumental waste of time and money if it isn't prepared to do a little theoretical thinking before it starts mobilizing its scanners.

Perhaps the most effective essay isn't an essay at all, but more a visual presentation titled "Our Bodies Are Not Final" by Edison del Canto. It plays upon the ancient metaphor that relates the presumed fixity of the text to the solidity of our bodies while drawing a parallel relationship between meaning and soul. The problem with digital media is that it eliminates the solid sense of text and leaves us in doubt of our own embodiment. Ironically, this piece includes the following passage set amongst red and black squares:

Academic expert culture is a culture of command. It secures authority. It achieves command and authority by subjecting you to institutionally legitimated intellectual and sociological power structures. You achieve command by being yourself commanded, and you secure authority by subjecting yourself to institutional authority.

What do words mean when they are disembodied? Allison Muri carries this discussion further as she considers The Visible Human Project. This project involved repeatedly photographing thin cross–sections of male and female cadavers to produce a complete anatomical catalogue of the human body which can now be viewed online as 'pages.' She draws an obvious correspondence to the Human Genome Project, which appears to have reduced humanity to text and lends itself well to being indexed and marked up as hypertext.

Will we one day be able to do the same thing with our souls, reducing the foundations of our identities to code that can be digitally warehoused and transferred through ethernet? Muri neatly draws in the earlier discussions regarding the shift from illuminated manuscript to printing press. Citing Umberto Eco, she suggests that the shift may have been problematic for the church, not because it involved an adjustment to a new medium, but because the 'cathedral' lost some of its authority as gatekeeper of knowledge to an increasingly secular press. In the same way, perhaps our 'cathedral' is losing authority. The modern concept of human consciousness or personal identity, as represented by the paper page, is giving way to a 'secular' electronic arbiter of knowledge.

Again, in the silence, we find ourselves drawing a conclusion which is not so surprising after all: the challenge we face is not about adjusting to new ways and new ideas; it is about the age–old struggle for power.

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!