Deep in a dungeon in Southern France, the Bishop extracts a confession. Certain peasants have been seen reading a paper book by the light of the moon. Books made of paper lie beyond the pale of the permissible, which in 1320 consists of books made of parchment and in 2011, books made of bytes. The Bishop smells brimstone because the social system (the system of production that surrounds a paper book) is not the same system that produces and distributes parchment books: what kind of text would you trust, that someone could get rid of in a pinch? What kind of reader reads off paper, which isn't even locally produced? Of course, parchment is more labor-intensive, sheet-for-sheet, but that won't present a problem until the Black Plague makes it imperative to extract more labor from what's left of the workforce. Only heretics read off of paper, in the moonlight.
"For an American, apparently, a book is something you can't put in your pocket," says the critic Terry Eagleton. E-readers are the new real books, according to the new bishops. A paper book slips into your pocket or somebody else's pocket if you both have something to hide; you can leave a book on a park bench, and publishers hate that, they make their living limiting the use-value of books just as librarians make a living protecting the use-value of texts. Authors make a living from the reverse: the thing that makes a publisher rich and a librarian comfortable (distributing stuff that can't be shared because it's been decided that it can't) is the thing that makes an author poor: limiting the ways in which the text is shared, or torn, if it's parchment or bytes.
Nicholas Jenson was a loser, among the greatest of those losers who made books what they are yesterday. Around 1470 he began to print books in Venice that looked just like luxury hand-written books with all the bells and whistles; like e-book publishers today, he tried to produce books that would appeal to those who wanted to show off new-fangled toys that happened to be just as good as the old-fangled toys; to those for whom a fancy, illuminated book, like a book on parchment or an e-reader, was not a means of expanding access but of defining the terms by which access was to be limited, and by whom. Then Jenson gave up and began to print cheap, throwaway textbooks for theology students in Padua. A generation later, Aldus Manutius began to print books that looked as if they'd been scribbled out in italics, for crying out loud: small enough that you could stick them in your breast-pocket, handy protection for a road warrior.
We're told that "something's lost" when books go cyberbook, and told that it's the "essence" of "the" book, at least if we believe in essences and Santy Claus. The blasphemer goes for those essences that aren't essences at all: the forms and stories the Bishop doesn't care for, the stone that the builders of the software forgot. His aim is not to prop up a disintegrating community (book lovers, booksellers, publishers or the priesthood), but to constitute a new community of users and blasphemers around the things that all blasphemers love: puns, bumpersticker sentiments, cyphers and philosophy; garish colors; satire, politics and lots of sex; all of which, in passing, are present in my book and my store.
A certain M. Bakhtin suggests that the books of Rabelais could only have appeared at a certain point in the history of books; maybe at other, certain, points as well. What Rabelais would have thought of blogs, I think I know. What Rabelais would have thought of fancy-pants machines that makes you feel as if you're turning the pages of a real Medieval book, would set your ears on fire. Verfremdung: it's not just for peasants in the moonlight.
- Paul Werner.
The blasphemer bides his time.