Pet Book #7 (woops): Digital Materialities

For my final post, I thought I would touch on some of the questions that have woven themselves into all of my previous posts, as well as into some of our class discussions. Paramount among them is the question of what constitutes a book “as such,” with particular emphasis on the question of the digital book. We’ve spoken at quite a bit of length about the impoverished language we have available to describe “books” – that the term book itself suggests a particular format, that reclaiming alternatives such as ‘codex’ to refer to particular iterations of the format are insufficient because of their place in other specific scholarly concerns, etc. – and, at risk of further complicating an already complicated problematic, I would like to offer up another avenue for analysis: the audiobook.

The audiobook-as-form quite obviously expresses its particular materiality. There are two reasons for this: one, I can point to and think about the physicality of sound much more obviously than the optics of the page. Second, we tend to be more aware, even in nonanalytical contexts, of the ‘materiality’ of a sound file – they take up “space” on our hard-drives or phones, we exchange the files, move them, edit them, upload them. Of course, we do this with ebooks, too, so this hardly supplements the argument that an ebook counts as a book.  But then, I’m not especially interested here in presenting an argument about whether ebooks or audiobooks are books themselves: ultimately, that’s too large a theoretical project for the space of this post, and I suspect it will just return me to the problem that we simply don’t have the right language to talk about it (perhaps, as our seminar suggested, in five years or ten or twenty, we won’t add the ‘e’ or ‘audio’ to ebooks or audiobooks).

Instead, I want to make a speculative gesture. An audiobook version of a ‘normal’ or ‘physical’ (again, the poverty of language) book is not ‘the same’ as that other version, that which it is a file of a recording of a reading of. Regardless of your feelings about whether audiobooks are books or not, this is pretty clear. My readerly experience of an book vs. my aural experience of the same audiobook is different, mediated by the voice, tones, accents, inflections of its narrator. It is materially different; I can’t turn back the pages, my agency as reader is altered, I can’t mark my spot in the same way – my movement is no longer spatial in quite the same way. An audiobook is, then, not a “pure” aural iteration of the ‘standard’ book, or even of an ebook. It is, at the risk of beating to death the horse I have tormented already in previous posts, different.

What would it mean to hear a book, properly understood – not to hear its text, but to hear the book itself?

I tried to pursue this with field recordings, and it didn’t really work so well. Then I remembered an art project that I had started for fun in 2014. It involved reading images as raw data, and generating audio from that data. I worked with a few paintings, a few digital images, a 3d model. All produced glorious, incoherent noise. Why not repeat this with a book?

Obviously, I don’t have an easy way to capture a ‘standard’ book in its whole materiality – how can I digitize texture, capture the physicality of pages? I can 3d-model scan it, but that still introduces a mediation which interrupts the real “thing.” So I chose to work with an ebook. Project Gutenburg has a nice .epub (a common ereader format) version of Astoria available, so I downloaded it, imported it into Audacity as raw data (a freeware audio editing and manipulation program) and exported it as a .wav file.

 8.801 seconds of wonderful, incoherent noise. That is what Astoria sounds like. Below is the “metadata”, or, as I’ve labeled this image file, the paratext of this audio-ish-book-ish.



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