Consider this: the book—and, by extension, writing—is now said to be on its deathbed.
I thought of these things last night when reading The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature (Cow Heavy Books). The anthology, edited by Ben Segal and Erinrose Mager, consists of blurbs, dusk jacket copy, and descriptions for unwritten and, perhaps, unwritable books. In their call for submissions, the editors made clear that they both wanted to writers “to imagine that they’ve just read the most amazing book they’ve ever encountered” and, in the broadest sense, “conceptualize forms and potential works: not necessarily to bring them into being.”
Sixty-two authors provided entries for this Catalog, most in fundamentally unique ways. Some satirized the hyperbolic language of the blurb form (Blake Butler: “this book lit down upon my house and ate my children and my mind”). Others used the occasion for socio-political barbs: (Vanessa Place: “Capital—the most important epic poem of the twentieth century”).
Where the Catalog succeeds most, in my opinion, is in the entries where the book form itself is brought into question. Rather than be just a bound collection of text printed on paper, Catalog writers point to other possibilities.
Michael Martone, writing about Nabokov’s lost book about butterfly collecting in the “central Indiana hardwood swamps,” envisions the book as a kind of Joseph Cornell wonder cabinet, complete with “… scale reproductions of the wing scales taken from the Karner Blue… a coupon redeemable for a podcast recording of the Luna moth calls....”
Assemblage also features in the book that Lance Olsen imagines, Paradise Blind, which is “contained in a text packed with typed over passages, torn postcards, poems that can be deciphered only when held up to a mirror, pages ornamented with trompe-lœil paperclips and coffee stains and buzzing houseflies…”
Craig Dworkin proposes The Cube: “Set in a grid, the book’s words can be read conventionally, across the page, as well as down each column… But they can also be read as stacked strata…By opening up the z-axis to reading in this way, The Cube recognizes the book as a three-dimensional sculptural space.”
Shelley Jackson’s The Slow Book is hammered out and “encoded into a series of punctures on a strip of copper… at a rate of one word per century (local time).”
Ben Mirov’s Inadequate Pillow is “seems to be about nothing in particular.” Yes, it contains “orthographic symbols,” but its primary function is as a physical object: “It might be used as a pedestal for a vial of dust. In certain cases, the book may be used for sexual intercourse…”
The book’s physicality is further explored in Sean Higgins’s The Paper Archivist entry, while, most tantalizingly, Adam Robinson writes that he “opened the third drawer of Barbara D’Albi’s wooden novel.”
Can all the modifications in book technology suggested by these many writers be implemented given present book industry operations? Perhaps not. Yet like the Oulipo movement that inspired this collection, the works show that even this late in the game, we still have not fully explored what “book” might mean.