Textual Possession: Some Thoughts on Materiality, Ownership, and the Power of Books
I am writing this post on my 11 inch MacBook air, which is significantly lighter than my previous MacBook, a chubby, white, rounded model that never seemed quite as officious as my newer device. My current laptop feels much different in my hands; the weight, size, and shape all contribute to decisions regarding my reading habits (laptop if reclining in bed, iPad when sitting up, etc.). The computer smells a bit like pizza because of my growing tendency to eat directly off of the keyboard. The delete key is starting to stick because of frequent use.
Though discussions of digital media are evolving, it still seems as if it is more common to reminisce about the musty smell of an old volume than to compose an ode to the dust bunnies nestled in a computer. The library emits a nostalgic aura while the server farm is only beginning to materialize as a physical space in popular culture. I find this distinction fascinating, in part because I often catch myself labeling digital texts as ephemeral, immaterial, and less intimate than their printed counterparts. Yet, the more I interrogate this tendency, the more I realize that a lack of materiality does not fully explain this issue; our distinction between “real” books and digital texts begins to break down when we consider the extent to which digital texts are also entangled in webs of physical, emotional, and economic materiality. In other words, I find myself agreeing with media theorist Matthew Kirshenbaum when he writes that “neither hypertext theory nor cybertext theory yet talks about the materiality of first generation electronic objects with anything near the precision or sophistication scholars habitually bring to bear on more traditional objects…” This point applies both to digital devices and the texts we access on them, since both are rooted in and bound by physical constraints. Kirshenbaum’s work examines the often-overlooked material nature of digital texts, focusing on their status as made objects that contain the types of inconsistencies that characterize all objects. His research helps us to begin to think of technology as crafted, embodied, interpretative, and physical. However, if these objects are material in ways not entirely dissimilar from traditional objects, what exactly stands at the root of our perception of difference between digital and print texts?
In his book A Sense of Things (which focuses on the representation of objects in early American modernism), Bill Brown makes an observation that I find useful in thinking through the distinctions between print and digital reading technologies; namely, that in a democratic state, objects offer the opportunity to “certify distinction within a form of society in which distinction can not be stabilized.” In a society in which all individuals are supposed to be equal, possessing objects becomes a way to forge hierarchies and identities. However, if everyone has the right, if not always the opportunity, to posses the same objects, then the ability of objects to confer identity is disrupted. As a democratizing force, accessibility poses an obstacle in our quest to reify and reinvent our own identities. Far from causing us to lose interest in material possessions however, this “democracy of objects” sends us on a never-ending quest to own objects that both “always mediate identity, and always fail to.” I would add to this observation that the desire to personalize the objects we posses is tied to this quest. Maybe my tendency to spend far too long customizing the exact chin width of my character on Skyrim isn’t dissimilar from the way I inscribe my name in my print copies of my favorite books. We might ask however, what happens to this desire if the ability to own or personalize an object in the traditional sense is denied?
In his questioning of how we use objects to make meaning and create our own identities, Brown observes that we both possess and are possessed by objects: “But the effort to sell things, to purchase things, and to accumulate things had an inevitable result: ‘We realize that we do not possess them; they possess us.’” Though Brown is not referring specifically to books, his idea certainly applies to them, and, if we think of possession not only in the sense that in connotes ownership, but also in its association with an inhabitation that disrupts the autonomy of the subject, then it becomes especially useful.
I couldn’t help but think of the connections between ownership, possession, and books when I was watching the new Goosebumps film two weeks ago. There are a number of texts that explore issues of ownership, but this film focuses on textual possession in a way which I think helps to highlight not only Brown’s points, but also their potential application to an understanding of digital media. The film’s narrative revolves around a teenage boy named Zach who discovers that his next-door neighbor is R. L. Stine, the author of the Goosebumps horror books, which were popular with children in the 1990’s. Stine is in possession of the original manuscript copies of all of his books, and it turns out that when these copies are opened, the fictional monsters from the stories materialize and “escape” from the books into the real world. The books are quite literally possessed.
On the surface, the film’s plot offers a rather basic metaphor for the way that books and the act of reading have the power to create worlds and shape reality. However, what I found particularly interesting about the film was its focus on the material status of books as objects, and the way in which that material status is tied to ownership and the privileges associated with it. Towards the middle of the film it is revealed that the only way to get the monsters back into the books is to write a new book that will describe the defeat of the monsters. In response, Zack tells Stine that he can use the school’s computer to write the last book. My first reaction to this bit of dialogue was to anticipate that Stine would scoff at the idea of using a computer and perhaps reply with some remark extolling the virtues of a well-bound print book. Stine does explain that a computer will not work, however the reason given has less to do with concerns about materiality and more to do with questions of ownership. Stine has to use the typewriter he’s used for all his books. The typewriter he’s treasured since childhood. His typewriter. Interestingly, the film ends with Zach finishing the story on Stine’s typewriter, after Stine has given it to him. The typewriter as an object conveys a power that allows Zach to add to Stine’s story, creating a textual palimpsest. In this process, Zach the reader is transformed into Zach the author.
The issues addressed in Goosebumps bear an uncanny similarity to the themes explored in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, another story about a possessed (and possessing) book. House of Leaves is the story of a manuscript that reaches out through the history of past owners with the mysterious power to release unknown horrors on the present reader. It is a haunted book, a cursed manuscript that has found its way into the hands of the reader. The novel begins when one of the characters, Johnny Truant, finds a unique and uncanny text, left behind by the passing of its previous owner. Truant becomes the new owner of this manuscript, and is positioned as a “reader” of the text. In this sense, the actual reader is configured as a future narrator who will eventually add layers to the textual palimpsest (confusing, I know). Truant writes, “At least some of the horror I took away at four in the morning you now have before you, waiting for you a little like it waited for me that night, only without these few covering pages.” In this sense, the text implies that ownership can be a terrible burden, however, as in Goosebumps, ownership also allows for a type of creative power, since the reader of House of Leaves is positioned as a future author who may add to the text.
These two examples suggest that the powers afforded by ownership are associated with print books in a way that they are not yet associated with digital media. What I think this helps to highlight, is that materiality (or it’s lack) does not fully explain the discrepancy in the way we think about print and digital objects. Why though, might we perceive ownership as functioning differently in printed versus digital objects? If we return to Brown’s point about a “democracy of objects,” it becomes clear that the accessibility associated with digital texts (Google books, digital archives, online journals) creates a new type of relationship between reader and text, one that may deny traditional notions of identification, ownership, and intimacy. Even the digital texts we do “own” however, deny readers many of the actions and behaviors typically associated with ownership. Sharing, lending, and bestowing in the conventional sense are not readily available options for the eBook owner. The inability to personalize these texts may prevent us from perceiving them as truly ours: annotating a text in one’s own hand, dog earing pages, and pasting pictures or snippets of text into a book, are all privileges of ownership that are unavailable in most digital texts. While digital texts are certainly changing (increasingly allowing for different types of annotation and reader interactions), they still do not manifest historicity, transmission, and ownership in the same ways as print objects. Since these actions are traditionally privileges of ownership, their absence affects our relationship with digital texts. This raises an interesting question; if we do not feel as if we can truly posses our digital texts, can we ever feel that we can be possessed by them?
Brown, Bill. A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2003. Print.
Danielewski, Mark Z. Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.
Goosebumps. Dir. Rob Letterman. Perf. Jack Black and Dylan Minnette. Columbia Pictures, 2015. Film.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. "Materiality and Matter and Stuff: What Electronic Texts Are Made Of." Web log post. Electronic Book Review. Joseph Tabbi, 01 Oct. 2001. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
Sillero, Carlos. Old Books. Digital image. Free Images. N.p., 23 Aug. 2005. Web.