Pet Book Report #4: Interface Objects and Performative Materiality

Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography broaches the subject of multi-volume production and serialization by immediately glossing the financial and mechanistic realities of the industrial revolution and the cast-iron industrial printing press. The popularity of “three-deckers,” or three-volume novels largely arose from publisher’s proclivities rather than public demand for such editions. On a purely pragmatic level, the trifurcated nature of release meant that “the author had to keep not only the design of the whole work in mind, but also the identity of the individual numbers, each of which had to lead to a climax or at least to a point at which the reader could reasonably leave the story for a month.” (Gaskell, 302) In addition, the economy of volumetric production changed drastically, meaning there were “positive savings to be made on editions of up to about 10,000 copies, and no harm in printing 100,000 copies if they could be sold.” (Gaskell, 304) At such a scale, booksellers could purchase cheaply produced books and enjoy significant mark-up simply by selling an edition in two volumes with either demy or post octavo. Given the observations I’ve made about this particular run of Swallow Barn—that it is designed to exude erudition (faux-deckled edges as a status symbol in the 19th century) while, in all likelihood, being a cheaply produced text—one immediate and obvious observation might be to suggest that the two-volume edition of Swallow Barn is merely a relic of commercial practice. Viewed as such, there might be little left to interrogate about this otherwise superfluous format. Swallow Barn could, after all, be condensed easily to fit in a single volume, nor does it contain an authorial ontology throughout that “insists” or depends upon the separated nature of its production. The story, separated into the otherwise plaited stories of Swallow Barn and The Brakes, depends no more upon being volumed than it does printed image or frontispiece. Now, either for thematic or transitional purposes, I present Dorothy Parker’s “Two-Volume Novel:”

Two-Volume Novel
The sun’s gone dim, and
The moon’s turned black;
For I loved him, and
He didn’t love back.

Must then both volumes love one another, be they so united by their singular bookness? By this point, you might be wondering: So, what about interface objects and performative materiality? When will you, finally, to our non-amazement, insert a Drucker quote to relieve some of the dramatic build-up? Here, then, is an answer to the second question that we might elucidate more eloquently our answer to the first (drawn from Prof. Boeckeler’s Comb Poems):
“Although they assume a material that is static (gold, circle), the posy’s evocation and therefore provocation of the object’s material characteristics highlights Johanna Drucker’s notion of performative materiality. This theory of materialism is resistant to the idea that an object’s identity consists of a static, seemingly objective set of properties and capacities. Her claim is that “an object is produced as an effect of a dynamic relation between provocation of the object’s characteristics and an interpretative process.”
What, then, can be said of the dual nature of the two-volume set? If we reject the notion that our understanding of this text’s use-value is limited to its production history, we can begin to bring into focus a new type of materialism—a sort of chiasmic parallax wherein these two volumes can be viewed simultaneously or side-by-side. By entertaining the idea that multiple-volume runs of texts can be enjoyed synchronously, we open ourselves to the possibility that early multi-volume editions represented a sort of functional hypertext. Such a hypertext destabilizes the linearity of canonicity and convention, where books are meant to be experienced unidirectionally and with a critical and prosaic intentionalism. Side-by-side, Swallow Barn begins to assume a strange literary dualism where the “first” volume contains caricatures and pastorals and the “second” the majority of the human dramas that therein unfold. We can, if we so choose, envision vol. 1 as a sort of dramatis personae and identificatory rhetorical move, thus setting the stage for the narrative of vol. 2. Alternately, we might begin to better visualize (literally) the strange palimpsest that this text represents; for it is, in Kennedy’s own words “[Kennedy”s] book therefore, in spite of himself, has ended in a vein altogether different from that in which it set out. There is a rivulet of story wandering through a broad meadow of episode. Or, I might truly say, it is a book of episodes, with an occasional digression into the plot.” (Kennedy, vii)
Material separateness, then, is able to physically embody the rambling, wandering, episodic nature of Kennedy’s composing process. It also makes possible the aforementioned chiasmus, wherein we could potentially invert the “intended” reading order of these two volumes to yield a new narrative. The rambling, disorganized approach that Kennedy assumed in writing his “narrative” certainly invites this sort of interaction. Indeed, apart from being ignorant to the history of certain characters that are otherwise mentioned with narrative aplomb, the second volume, having thus been treated as “first,” can be read with relative ease. I wonder if this new narrative would change how Swallow Barn presents as a book “on the wrong side of history;” would pernicious parts of the thin, ambling core narrative un- and/or re-write themselves? What about remixing in other volumes, perhaps runs far larger and less austere in division? I have to believe that something as bizarre and unintentional as this could yield interesting and academically compelling results.

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