Monday, October 11, 2010

My father's prayerbook was wrapped in duct tape, with light brown wear along every edge; the top bristled with dozens of paperclips that kept the clipped poems, Beatles lyrics, and handwritten notes in place. The book expressed him even better than his sermons could – his restless curiosity, his catholic appreciation of wisdom in its many guises, and most of all his conviction that tradition evolves. His prayerbook, you could say, had an aura: it conveyed a presence through its visible history, even before you opened the cover.

James Bridle is one of many innovators who wants to bring the aura into the age of e-books. As Bridle aptly reminds us in a recent post, e-book publishers tend to treat books as information delivery systems, rather than (potentially) individual, auratic objects. We've heard this argument many times before. But Bridle promises to change the game by developing a universal platform for readers to not only annotate and highlight their e-books, but to share these metadata with others, thus personalizing and democratizing electronic texts.

I can't help thinking, though, that the focus on personalizing texts isn't thinking broadly enough. Most of the debate over the future of books has focused on just a few uses of the book format: novels, magazines, and scholarly/nonfiction work. That's Bridle's paradigm, too. But what about if we think about books as sacred objects? Could that lead us to more expansive and innovative thinking about the future of texts and what it means for one to have an aura?

As I see it, to treat a text as sacred means that it's always being rewritten in the heart of the reader. I think about the old prayerbook – too important to disregard, but also too important not to keep changing and renewing. The aura of a text is a physical manifestation of this individual process of working and reworking – the art of reading made visible. But, crucially, it's also a sign that something about the text is always just out of reach. That elusiveness is what calls forth more rereading; and that's what we risk forgetting if the conversation about the future of books is only about personalizing and democratizing information. It's an important topic, but only one part of the picture.