I’ve been wanting to write a post about books for a while; much of my site and corresponding CV claim competence in a topic I discuss with only peripheral mention on my blog pages: metadata and librarianship as opposed to my other interest like radio and tech stuff. With this post, I hope to correct that, or at least reference more directly the substrate of so many of my recent thoughts about programming, publishing, and psychology in general.The Books – Smells Like Content from Nick zammuto on Vimeo.
This is a post about the invisible and peripheral information that brings life to our documents and narratives. It tackles the topic in two approaches: one analog, one digital. The first introduces a bit of the importance of metadata to our contemporary affection for self-publishing online, the second assesses what is missing from the more “progressive” e-books of our current publishing practice, drawing from the former topic to link metadata and marginalia in the same family of awesome, and often ignored, peripheral founts of information. This is then, an ode to the peripheries and architectural support systems that give infrastructure to our ideas and wrap them in contextual integrity for sharing and storing.
As with all of my titles, this one is not inconsequential. Peripheral technologies, projects, and vocabularies have always been a preoccupation of mine. My initial affection for books and libraries drew on a interest in the textual margin notes of other students who read before me. My current affection for cryptography and, of late, the Voynich Manuscript mysteries are hardly divorced from a fascination with semantics and semiotics, from the science of code writing and the exercise of translation between schema. Studying science led me to appreciate the suffix -phage as shortened form of bacteriophage, a virus of protein constituency that propagates with enthusiasm, “devouring” its host. Some of the most complex and yet common entities in our biological world, phages seemed an appropriate organic metaphor to portmanteau with a diverse and complex topic in our digital world: peripheral information. Thus: periphages; this will be a blog post about those. It’s not that I want to suggest that peripheral information, in this case, metadata and marginalia, consume our current publishing practice, but rather that they are the pervasive counterparts to our content, and they should be acknowledged for their importance in as much as their malignant potential when neglected.
Translating the metaphors of contemporary software engineering to other domains isn’t really my objective either, though I like that there’s a “hackernews for data science” and a “version control for data platform.” I’m even intrigued that there seems to be an art ‘movement’ centered around data as a basic constituent (see my ghost blog on the topic in designcolumn.nl), though I’ll admit that dataism is like putting painted art in the category of pigment-ism or grouping books into a movement called “page-ism.” I sometimes feel that in our crusade for the medium as the message, we neglect that the metadata and marginalia embedded in the media actually make for its lasting meaning.
Meaning Making with Marginalia
Part of this segues conveniently into a catalog of things I love about literature, and our very human affection for peripheral information. It’s the metadata that gets all the love these days, not the data itself but the data about data, the marginal notes that dish facts about your your tweet times and your fbook graph. Fear of ebooks and newer “media” infiltrating the world of traditional lit is often fueled by a fear of object-loss, tactility, book smell in transition to a screen. However, it’s often a more general loss of “uniqueness,” loss of the book’s identity that seems the most upsetting. And these days, as perhaps before, identity is all in the marginalia or meta-meanings that wrap our lives. People ask me all the time if I dislike ebooks. Spoiler: not really. As a librarian I am saddened to watch people forget the beauty of marginalia, to get robbed of the fun of book graffiti. As a developer, I live my life on a kind of ebook ‘pro’, it has some fancy functionality but basically I use it to consume media and connect with the wwworld, the same is true for the book minus a few w’s.
Ebooks rob us of a few intellectual rights, however, and as a librarian, I am decidedly against that robbery…
- the right to ownership of the knowledge we consume (or the knowledge we let -phage/-phase us)
- the right to marginalia, to book graffiti, to the strange nerd pleasure that comes with that slight risk in book vandalism
- the right to heterogeneous media absorption (suites of screens are nothing like the delightful variety of books, newspapers, magazines…)
- the right to be alone
Everything in the world is enforcing a social behavior on us but sometimes you need to develop your brain independent of a network. A book gives you that agency. It allows to you to experience information absorption privately; it is the last outpost of private learning in our world. To that end, Medium hosted an excellent post on what’s missing from Streaming Music (over physical albums, CDs, records) and the conclusion was similar if not the same: metadata. We don’t have a nostalgia for the boxes of unused plastic cartridges and rubbery records, but we definitely miss the careful artistry of a well-designed cover, the supplemental luxury of liner notes and lyrics. The same could be said for what I miss most in physical books. I miss the tertiary marginalia. I miss solitary achievement; it sounds annoyingly Ayn Rand but I miss the intellectual ownership and reflexive confidence of being well read. And while I do love anonymity personally, I don’t want my books to be sans identity.
So, as a librarian, my professional opinion is that you should read real books and that you should write in the margins.
- to provide posterity with a a record of your reading and a welcome cliff-notes for future perusal
- to layer your books in palimpsestual legacy (sounds lewd but is actually a legit GRE word)
- to remind yourself you’ve read it
- to highlight your favorite passages and imbue them with the healthy character of being loved
So what are we to do, how can we manage to breathe life into ebooks? Since I began this post with consuming protein generation, I should conclude with something generative. It occured to me in reviewing documentation for the Ushahidi Crowdmap API, part of my current work for Mozilla, that I really should be part of a bookclub, and all my recent metadata musings fit with this new impulse.
“user_id”:3, “subdomain”:”ushahidibookclub”, “name”:”Ushahidi Book Club”, “description”:”The Ushahidi team talks about the books they’ve read and are reading.”, “public”:true, “moderation”:”collaborator”, “date_created”:1375758749,
So, maybe I need to start an ebook club, connect with the www in a more literary way? Other initiatives have been working to “reinvent e-books,” like the Ideo project on vimeo below, and the Unbound Concepts project, which uses NLP to read e-books to better match them to readers. I incubated on an idea for a few weeks after the NYPL ebooks hackathon (Jan 11), and now I think I’d like to build it. Perhaps I could build something like this, or a Dropbox/Github hack. Basically, as a “club” we’ll assemble a Library Thing listing of our favorite books. People in the club log their name and email address in a google doc, and the sorting is randomized each time. We’ll pass around an e-book copy, one at a time, and eventually make it through the chain of participants (with some time limits to ensure movement), but in this case, preserve marginalia. Participants will comment in the margins as they go, and the final annotated and awesome text will be shared with the group. It won’t be this:stoya from Diestl on Vimeo.
And it won’t be this:Peter Granser // Was einem Heimat war from haveanicebook on Vimeo.
But it will be a punk rock form of both. If you want to be a part of my book club, send me a message via the contact form below, and I’ll add you to a book club project that I’ve been thinking about for a while. In sum, I believe in books, as catalyzing and consuming (-phagous) entities when wrapped in marginal identity. And with that, I leave you with a December Brainpickings comment, in response to 9-year-old Ottilie’s question about why we have books:
Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, know how the world works, and, in the process, know ourselves more deeply in a way that has nothing to with what you read them on and everything to do with the curiosity, integrity and creative restlessness you bring to them…And though the body and form of the book will continue to evolve, its heart and soul never will. Though the telescope might change, the cosmic truths it invites you to peer into remain eternal like the Universe. In many ways, books are the original internet – each fact, each story, each new bit of information can be a hyperlink to another book, another idea, another gateway into the endlessly whimsical rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit – because the landscape of your life is different, new, “reloaded” by the very act of living.
If you want to join my book club, fill out the form below: