Performing the Book

As a scholar, I’ve long been inspired by Julio Cortazar’s comments that great writing is like Jazz—improvised, in the moment or “the take.” The best public history and digital humanities, I’ve argued, are performative, like Cortazar’s best writing—like the best books.

Of course, books are performative—written, read, engaged—but that quality is rarely discussed when we mull the future of the book, with our focus being mostly on form, publishing, and preservation. As digital technologies have exploded publishing, they’re allowing us to recognize (once again) the performative aspects of the book as a knowledge system.

Digital technology, especially the emergence of mobile technologies and cloud computing, mean that books can now be performed—produced, experienced, and engaged—more fluidly and in more places. Of course, we could always read and annotate our dog-eared edition of Ulysses while walking the streets of Dublin, drinking in a local pub. But, now we can “read” Ulysses hyper-textually in Dublin (or in a pub anywhere) with comments and annotation, as well as video, audio, and other media expressions. We can fully experience literature.

As digital innovation has democratized writing, it also now allows communities to not just experience literature, but also to produce it. This production occurs in multiple contexts, with producers building communities through open-source technologies that publish in a variety of fashions: aggregation, multimedia, micro-blogging, long form journalism, and mash-up. The work has redefined narrative and storytelling, and built communities of professionals, experts, amateurs, and crowds. These communities not only engage story and narrative, they transform text through their engagement. This is conceptually apparent in crowdsourced projects, annotation, and social media sharing.

Additionally, the emergence of smartphones (and now tablets) has allowed (coupled with cloud computing) for new publishing forms to become part of and to engage the physical landscape. Indeed, locative media allows us to explore narrative and stories in place. The landscape becomes hypertextual because it allows us to connect a book—or, for that matter, multiple books, annotations, links, and media—to a particular geography, structure, and physical context. That landscape moves from the object of narrative to part of the text itself. It evokes space, identity, landscape; it helps us individually and collectively to remake “place.” Perhaps more importantly, for us, the book becomes a space of play, a play space, a place of itself.

In accentuating longstanding qualities of books—their fluidity and interactivity and portability—the digital has reemphasized books as performative. Digital knowledge systems and the future of publishing books demand that we engage the dynamism of books as living performances.

Cross-posted Performing the Book, in Sprint Beyond the Book.

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