The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species

[Feature image: Marginal illumination of an ursine scribe from the Bohun Psalter and Hours]

Last year, a member of the first edition of the Technotexts seminar, Suzanna Hersey, encouraged me to read Ken Liu’s Paper Menagerie, and she was especially keen to see what I’d make of the collection’s opening story, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species.” I have now used it as the final reading (more on this in a moment) of Technotexts 2.0. It’s actually a bit of a stretch to call “Bookmaking Habits” a “story,” though: it’s better labeled a bestiary, that wonderful ancient genre brought to perfection by medieval bookmaking techniques (especially its practices of illumination). Liu has won my affection by creating a bibliographic bestiary. Each account describes

  1. anatomical and cultural traits of “select” alien species (though Earthlings do make a brief appearance as donors of “tablets and vases incised with Linear A, bundles of knotted strings called quipus, as well as an assortment of ancient magnetic discs and cubes that they no longer knew how to decipher”), and
  2. the inscription technologies and reading/writing techniques that the species develop as a result of #1.

“Bookmaking Habits” bears an obvious resemblance to Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which has been widely cited as an influence. And rightly so. But whereas one watches Calvino playing out a structuralist game across his lexias, Liu is constrained only by his powers of imagination as he reflects on a deeply human question: how our physical and social habits shape our practices for transmitting wisdom. As I read, I was struck by how this exercise would have pleased bibliography’s greatest ecumenist, D. F. McKenzie, who defined the discipline as the study of “texts as recorded forms, and processes of their transmission, including their production and reception,” and who famously argued in the 1980s that bibliographers should include new media among their concerns. “Bookmaking Habits” exemplifies how speculative science fiction can refract the human condition and thereby allow readers to consider it anew. In this case, the bestiary calls attention to the uses we set for our inscription technologies (what we save, what we don’t), how we make and consume textual media, and how our tools develop in relation to human physiology. The bestiary can, in other words, facilitate a deeply pleasurable sort of critical reflection on the strange bookmaking habits of the homo sapiens.

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I mentioned above that I assigned this work as the final reading for the Technotexts Seminar 2.0. At some point, I hope to write at greater length about how the class works and what I hope to achieve through it (for me, for my students, for my department, etc.). For now, I think that all that needs to be said is that the students in this edition spent a lot of time manipulating, decoding, discussing, and writing about artists’ books. They have assayed the ways that our culture talks about “the book” and debated to which objects that powerful label should apply.

All of that stretching and tearing and arguing and imagining (with some type-setting thrown in at points) has allowed them to write thoughtful, delightful, altogether wonderful responses to Liu. With the permission of the authors, I hereby offer to the Internet the technotextnicians’ additions to
the bibliographic bestiary:

 

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