On “Breaking the Book: Print Humanities in the Digital Age,” by Laura Mandell

On “Breaking the Book: Print Humanities in the Digital Age,” by Laura Mandell

In Breaking the Book: Print Humanities in the Digital Age, Laura Mandell contends with the form and function of the book (and especially the book of literary or cultural criticism) as well as the shift from a print-based to electronic-based humanities. She suggests that it is timely to critically engage with the academic book as universities and their outputs increasingly move online. In this sense, Mandell’s topic is akin to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s in Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, a comparison that becomes even more apparent as Mandell considers the “monstrous” (165) form of the book and the author’s quest for immortality in writing it; not unlike Fitzpatrick’s suggestion that the academy is rife with zombie-logic that insists on privileging the “undead” (4) monograph.

Throughout Breaking the Book, Mandell charts the book of criticism from the 1700s through to the present day, tracing how attitudes and practices have shifted in regards to this specific artifact. She argues that the authority of print misleads readers into thinking that false statements or errors are true — they are so very fixed in their black ink on white paper.  She also suggests that the academic author’s subject position (e.g. in a university) may well be contra to the political statements they put forth in a book of criticism, most especially when they concern late capitalism. Authors, Mandell writes, need to be contextualized as well, or at the very least aware of their own context and subject position. Publishing can trigger a schism between larger society and academics, whereby the fixed, staid, printed work assumes cultural authority, and is written in such a way as to exclude most people from grasping the debates and conclusions outlined within.

Overall, Mandell claims that books represent an attempt at fixity, authority, and immortality. The digital, on the other hand, offers flexibility and iteration that is not available in printed form. She closes with a call to arms, suggesting that

if we can become digitally literate in a way that matters for the future of literature, we can hold open the spaces of interpretation and the time of play, the best thing that the book machine in our discipline has been able to do. (183)

… no small task, but a worthy one, to be sure.

Works cited

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. 2011. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York: New York U Press.

Mandell, Laura. 2015. Breaking the Book: Print Humanities in the Digital Age. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.

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