Michael Suarez’s “The Two Futures of Book History”

March 11, 2010

The new head of the Rare Book School, Michael Suarez began his talk “The Two Futures of Book History” at Columbia University earlier this week with the two “presents” of Book History.  He views rise of Book History over the past thirty years as having built a field comprised of literary critics on one hand and analytical bibliographers on the other, with little overlap between the two.  The grand promises made to contribute to our understanding of society and the creation of knowledge seems to have faded into the scientific calculations of measuring kerns and listing journeyman printers.  The field is in danger of  specializing itself into irrelevance as it telescopes its research into ever narrowing iterations.  To regain relevance in academia, Book Historians need to look to a broader, more humanistic, approach to connect research to issues of vital importance in society and build upon a larger history of criticism to understand about the role texts play in societies and cultures.

For Suarez, interdisciplinary study today has turned into an academic facade in which a specialist in one field borrows a few sentences or ideas from another field without any meaningful integration or understanding.  To become truly interdisciplinary and seek to fulfill the earlier promise, he proposes that teams of scholars work together to build deeper relationships between materiality and meaning.  He also argues against a Panglossian optimism that he sees as stemming from a lack of self-awareness of the historiographical and methodological short-comings of research and researchers.  I certainly wouldn’t argue that he is mistaken in this, but I might proffer that both of these issues (interdisciplinarity and optimism) are a result of the relative youth of the field and the limits of its scholarly products.  Conservation has similar shortcomings in the literature, with a body of individual practical studies that can not be tied together by substantial theoretical underpinning, and a multitude of disparate related fields that are utilized in a piecemeal fashion without a true interdisciplinary understanding.  My own read of this situation is that conservation, like Book History, is in the slow process of creating a foundation of literature that future researchers can build from, but perhaps we need more works of theory such as Applebaum’s Conservation Treatment Methodology and Munoz-Vinas’ Contemporary Theory of Conservation to challenge conservators to consider their work more intensely.

Of course, any Book History talk worth its salt cannot help but touch upon the role of the physical book in the digital age.  Suarez brought up Craig Mod’s recent claims regarding the “formless content” of most published books and dispatched it with a tempered but thorough discussion of books as “totalizing sign systems.”  Visual clues such as cover color and format size serve as markers of social codes that the reader interprets in the translation of form into meaning.  Even the argument that ebooks are formless texts falls short under even the most basic consideration of the e-ink or other digital interface that readers must utilize.  E-books can offer many benefits to readers, but Mod too easily glosses over the fact that surrogates always involve a loss of information.

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