Karsten Moran

What would the world be like without books? It turns out this is a very old question. In the third century, the Egyptian scholar Origen created a six-columned reading device, a superbook, for comparing the Hebrew and Greek sources of the Bible. In the 13th century, the Majorcan scholar Ramon Llull imagined the book first in the shape of a tree and then as a series of spinning discs. In the 19th century, the German satirist Jean Paul conceived of the book as one long, unfurling piece of paper consisting of a single line of poetic prose (or prosaic poetry). He said it would make no small impression were it attached to the back of a child, like angel's wings, or a juvenile sail made from diaper cloth.
At the end of the 19th century, the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé suggested that "all earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book." Neither many columned nor extremely long, the book was to be as large as the entire universe. In the 20th century, the Russian modernist filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein imagined a spherical book, the only proper form for his critical writings on cinema. There has even been an idea for a "book in a can," an inspired student project of a scroll stuffed into a metal container now preserved in the rare-books collection at McGill University.

Ever since its inception, it seems, we have been dreaming beyond the book.
In 2005, as part of an installation that would later be shown at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in New York, the Palestinian artist Emily Jacir shot 1,000 books using a .22-caliber pistol. "Material for a Film (Performance)," as it was called, was designed to commemorate the assassination of the Palestinian intellectual Wael Zuaiter, who was killed by Israeli intelligence agents in reprisal for the slaying of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. At the time of his death, Zuaiter was carrying a copy of A Thousand and One Nights, which he was translating into Italian. He was shot 13 times, and one of the bullets hit his copy of the book. The book now resides in the Wael Zuaiter Center in Massa Carrara, Tuscany.

In Jacir's installation, the book proved to be an affecting symbol for the defenseless scholar caught up in a world of violent exchange. It was a poignant reminder of Heinrich Heine's famous remark that where books are burned, people will soon follow. But Jacir's work was also part of a larger wave of contemporary projects that were performing aggressive, even violent, acts toward books. Cutting, drowning, soaking, unfurling, piercing, and shooting books have been some of the many ways that artists like Jacqueline Rush Lee, Jonathan Latham, Robert The, and Cara Barer have, over the past decade or more, been enacting a collective sense of the book's imminent demise. If we have forever been imagining our way past books, we have more recently begun to think about what it would be like to live in a world without them. We have begun the work of bibliographic mourning.

At an even deeper level, though, Jacir's work and the work of other book demolishers isn't just about a particular moment in time when the book's viability seems increasingly doubtful. It also captures something fundamental about the act of reading itself, something more timeless about the kindred spirits of mourning and melancholy that go with reading. Just as the imagination of how to transcend books has been integral to the history of books, so too is a sense of melancholy, a persistent sense of loss. Melancholy isn't a sign of the book's end; it is its inspiration. Melancholy is reading's muse.
The full piece here.