Alan Liu – “We really have to rethink, I think”

Alan Liu is Chair and Professor in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an affiliated faculty member of UCSB’s Media Arts & Technology graduate program. In 2008 Liu wrote an essay which is called: When Was Linearity?: The Meaning of Graphics in the Digital Age. Liu starts his lecture by doubting this concept of linearity (by referring to Books and Scrolls: Navigating the Bible” by Stallybrass (2002)—which claimed that Christian discourse was profoundly non-linear) and the concept of the book. In other words, what makes a book a book and what does not? “If the Digital book is only a virtual metaphor, is the printed book only a physical metaphor?”

Alan Liu at the Unbound Book Conference – photo cc by-sa Sebastiaan ter Burg

No books
The physical book is no longer uniform and authoritative as it once was: the rise of all kinds of digital possibilities like Ipads and e-readers result in a call to rethink our concept of ‘bookness’.

The following defenition of the book-concept:

“A long form of attention intended for the permanent, standard and authoritative i.e., socially repeatable and valued – communication of human thought and experience”

So, the book stands for a long form of attention, permanent standard, authoritative. One of the contemporary trends is the shortening of texts: the shrinking of books in the digitalization process.

But yes, books.
Liu wants to keep an open mind about what a book would be and keeps the answer to the question “What do we mean by the book?” open. He is convinced that: “Long forms of attention that we as a culture crave and value”.

We don’t have the instruments to find it now and it will take time to see which direction we will move as readers. Although much digital media is based on short messaging and quick updates, the long format keeps relevant and also very present in daily life. An example is a discussion on Twitter: it begun short, but on some topics the entire feed has a long format, because the discussion is broad. In this case the shortness in the first place has been counterbalanced.

To conclude, Liu refers to the ‘Agrippa’, a work of art created by novelist William Gibson, artist Dennis Ashbaugh and publisher Kevin Begos Jr. What is a book after all?

Elias van Hees

PDF of Alan Liu’s presentation available here: Alan Liu: This is Not a Book