To grow as a people, an exchange of ideas is fundamental to human culture, said poet Amaranth Borsuk.

“For me it doesn’t matter what physical form that takes as long as we are exchanging ideas with one another — that takes precedence over everything else,” she said. “But I do think that the physical form (of books) will continue to change, and we don’t necessarily need to fear that, we can still love old books while enjoying new digital forms as well.”

Borsuk, associate professor in the Bothell School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, waxed poetic about her book, “The Book,” during Thursday’s American Book Review at the University of Houston-Victoria.

Students filled the university’s Alcorn Auditorium to hear the poet, scholar and book artist speak about her book, which she composed in graduate school while working between two different worlds. She was conducting scholarly research on electronic literature and modernist poetry and working in a letterpress studio setting type by hand.

“We have a publishing program so the students regularly study the history of the book, and Amaranth is one of the foremost authorities on the topic,” said Jeffrey Di Leo, editor and publisher for the American Book Review and dean of the UHV School of Arts and Sciences. “After reading her book, they can enjoy hearing her talk about it.”

Her presentation included a slide that visually depicted the evolution of the book.

The version of the current-day book — a stack of pages bound along the spine and enclosed between covers — originated around 150 C.E. but was preceded by about 2,000 years of development of different book forms, she said.

“I don’t mean to propose that the book keeps getting better and keeps improving and we’re getting to the best version of the book possible,” she said, “By showing all those different forms of the book, I really want to emphasize that all are valid and useful forms of the book that meet the needs of a particular reader, a particular writer, a particular individual in a moment in which they arise.”

“We don’t have to be as afraid of the various e-books and interactive books,” she said. “We don’t have to see them as diametrically opposed to physical books but rather as a continuum of the books’ mutation and change over time.”

The structure of her book is divided into four sections. The first part addresses the history of books and their physical transformation. The second delves into the moment when industrial production led to the book being seen as content rather than an artifact. The third explores experimentation in the 20th and 21st centuries with book forms in ways that remind readers that the book is fundamentally an interactive and human-centric artifact. And the book ends with a discussion of the book as an interface.

“Basically, what’s in those covers is there, but it is not actually the thing it is meant to be until its pages are flipped,” she said. “This reminds us that books have always been an interactive medium.”

While working on the book, she realized that her perspective was uniquely shaped by her historical situation and educational background and that all of the influences that inform her understanding of what a book is also limit her understanding. So she invited other voices — artists, writers, publishers, librarians and anyone affiliated with books — to share their definitions. Their quotes are included throughout the book.

She ended the presentation with the voices of three of those artists rather than her own.

“I think a book is where we explore the magical space between eyes and the bent arm,” said Jason Dodge.

“A book is where the far away meets the near at hand – the tea cooling on the table – the hard seat of the chair – the horn sounding outside the window,” said Ann Hamilton.

“The book is a time travel device – allowing us to slip into the imagination of a future mind,” said Indira Allegra.

Elena Anita Watts covers arts, culture and entertainment for the Victoria Advocate. 

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