BOOKS REMAIN one of the great achievements of the human experiment. Over the millennia, the seismic shifts that began with the rise of languages, consolidation of the alphabet, and Gutenberg’s invention of the mechanical printing press in the fifteenth century made possible the codex form that endures amidst this latest seismic shift, the Digital Age. UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme, with its focus on conserving the world’s documentary heritage, wagers that our future—cultural or otherwise—is inextricably tied to our ability to remember the past through the stories that preserve it.
The twentieth-century book arts master Harry Duncan stated it memorably: “I think the whole point of a book is the text—the verbal creation of the author. Type, like handwriting, is simply a system of visible signs that still speech into a special form which waits to be resurrected in the human voice—to be re-created, because no reader will hear a poem exactly the same as another reader or the same as the author wrote it. So it’s an interesting business to retrieve what is there. It’s the way literature conquers time” (Against the Grain, ed. Robert Dana, 1986).
From a more radical perspective, the technology of books not only emblematizes print culture but perpetuates the agency of that culture in a posthumanist age. “Let’s restore to publishing its true reputation,” writes publisher Richard Nash, “not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian. The business of literature is blowing shit up” (VQR, Spring 2013).
As the sixteen writers gathered in this issue’s “The Future of the Book” cover feature attest, books possess both a radical, “barbarous” agency and a conservatory, civilizing staying power. For Japanese poet Shizue Ogawa, who lost all her books and journals when her family’s house burned down during her senior year in high school, we learn that her oldest surviving poem is preserved in a high school newspaper. From Azar Nafisi’s belief in the power of books—via the imagination—to “address our humanity, against any kind of absolutism, including the absolutism of death”; to Gerald Vizenor’s survey of Native American writers’ books of “presence, resistance, survivance, and liberty”; to Serge Chamchinov’s vision of “books in perpetual becoming” toward an unknown future, the ability of books to both document and conquer time as well as traverse real and imagined geographies remains a testament to their protean, babelian flourishing.
And we’ve learned to be agnostic about the forms our books take. As the editors were preparing to send this issue to press, to be printed by an offset lithography process more than a century old, I came across an original copy of Clara Luper’s Behold the Walls (1979), her firsthand account of leading the nonviolent Oklahoma City sit-in movement in 1958, which helped catalyze the civil rights movement in the United States. (Karlos Hill’s interview with her daughter, Marilyn Luper Hildreth, appears on page 14.) The binding of the cheaply produced paperback was falling apart, but the power of Luper’s testimony still leaps off the page. “Black and White together must prepare for America’s third century,” she writes in the epilogue, “knowing that the third century will be one of uncertainty, and the challenge of removing the ‘Invisible Walls’ will be our greatest task.” Preserved in the pages of Behold the Walls, the prophecy of Clara Luper’s witness remains as prescient today as it did in her lifetime, and in a new edition, forthcoming from the OU Press, that prophetic voice—and the culture of the book writ large—will resonate into the twenty-first century.
Editorial Note; I would like to thank Alice-Catherine Carls for her guiding vision in conceptualizing and carrying out this issue’s cover feature. As a longtime contributor to and editorial board member of WLT, she has not only enthusiastically supported our mission but helped us carry it out in myriad indispensable ways.