The Ecology of Texts
I've been thinking about books
today, what they are and aren't, how my relationship to them is changing, etc. Two things sparked my imagination: a post by Jason Kottke contrasting the reading experiences of books vs. the web [Using the Memex (kottke.org)
], and some interesting new tidbits I came across today about Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, as I begin the vaguest sort of preparation for a potential trip to Buenos Aires next spring.
In contrast with Jason's view of books as essentially discrete units ("self-contained"), here's a quotation from what is for me the definitive work on the nature of discourse in all its forms, especially books: The Archaeology of Knowledge
, by Michel Foucault:
The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network... The book is not simply an object that one holds in one's hands; and it cannot remain within the little parallelepiped that contains it: its unity is variable and relative. As soon as one questions that unity, it loses its self-evidence; it indicates itself, constructs itself, only on the basis of a complex field of discourse.
On a related note, difficult-to-classify artist (designer/typographer/musician/performer) Elliott Peter Earls of The Apollo Program
has described what he does as "replacing narrative coherence with referential density." For me the phrase referential density
holds an abundance of meaning, and goes a long way towards describing the things about life that are most interesting. From "difficult" novels like Gravity's Rainbow or Infinite Jest (the latter of which embodies that phrase very literally, in that a good 100 of its 1000-some pages are actually footnotes, a rarity in the novel form) to the self-conscious and self-referential work of Dave Eggers and the McSweeney's crew, many of my favorite works are those which bring together a great many disparate strands, even if those strands may themselves be fictitious. In my opinion, what you might call "outward-facing" literature always has greater potential because it can evoke worlds far outside its own boundaries.
To try and bring this thread back around, we return to Borges:
The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.
- Translated from Ficciones