Hypertext. What’s the big whoop?

Isn’t it a bit presumptous, not least to say arrogant, to declare that the book is dead?  In an article by Adam Hammond entitled ‘Literature in the Digital Age‘ he refers to Katherine Hayle’s argument that “Nearly all human communication, from e-mail and text messages to phone calls and snail mail, is mediated through some form of digital code.” (Hammond 173)  This fact cannot be denied, not even by a Luddite such as myself.  However, this digital age should not be allowed to lead the debate on the validity of more ‘traditional forms of literary culture.’


The book in printed form out sold the e-book this year for the second year running, says the Guardian  with a rise in children’s books and adult colouring books accounting for the majority of this increase.


As a parent of a teenager, I can testify to the popularity and preference of young people for print over electronic literature, as my daughter (13) asked for a new book at bedtime which I downloaded within minutes onto my Kindle and gave to her.  I could not have attained the desired product with such immediacy if I had been relying on the book shop and print.  A few days later she returned the Kindle and asked for the sequel with the proviso that it would come in printed form the next time.  This dislike for the electronic book did not come from me I hasten to add.  She said that it could not replace holding the product in her hands and turning the pages ‘properly.’

hand holding open book with flying alphabets n question mark. two little human or children hands holding a green study book with flying alphabet and question mark - education concept illustration

The Guardian suggests that children use books as ‘down time’ from their increasingly digital lives of social networking and gaming and as the first generation to have grown up in a completely digitized world it says something about the true nature of books if the next generation are turning to traditional modes of reading for relaxation.

Arguments for hypertext as a literary and empowering experience for the reader over the author, have no legitimacy.  As Hammond’s article suggests, print is just as interactive and participatory as digital literature postulates, through the constructive discussions that take place in the classroom, in reading groups and in the varied formats of academic journals.  It’s also important to note that the language of digital code has an author and everything in digital literature is constrained by the limitations of an author in some shape or form.  We only see what the author wants us to see.

The ability that hypertext gives the reader to traverse multiple platforms during their reading experience is perhaps something that the linear printed experience cannot replicate as efficiently but, what digital literature fails to acknowledge, is that, “A word is not a static container for meaning, but rather a little apparatus that is not only marked by it’s own history as etymology but also by the reader’s personal experience with that word.”  (Szilak 3)  In other words, a word is many things to many people and it has a life past it’s digital construction.  For Illya Szilak, in an article entitled “Towards Minor Literary Forms: Digital Literature and the Art of Failure” digital literature adds to our humanity, he argues for a co-cohabitant relationship between print and digital forms, exclaiming that both have a legitimacy and both are ‘art.’  It is to this end that I would have to agree.


Having interacted with the hypertextuality of ‘Pry‘, an e-literature which incorporates “Custom interactive gestures, audiovisuals, and psychological insights” (Jhave) I struggled to appreciate, what was surely a deeply intense and remarkable plot due to it’s overly ‘interactive’ nature.  Jhave describes this ‘micro-drama’ and it’s gestures as “Playful, giddy, strange” serving more as a distraction than an enhancement of the plot.  It is suggested that “It is difficult to allow entry into darkness if the door is a playground.”  Perhaps that is what digital literature is to me.  I only take my kids to the playground these days and I’m not sure I’d fit into the swings anymore.

Something that hypertext has also failed to engage with is the ‘bookishness’ of books.  They are having something of a resurgence recently with regards to the aesthetics of a book culture.  The battle between e-book and print has prompted booksellers to up their game somewhat and printed books can now be seen in the hands of celebrities and models and, in kitsch corners of the furniture market.  Another article in the Guardian testifies to the lengths to which book shops are fighting back.  Some are even employing technology to enhance the book buying experience.

Although I would openly admit that I am a lover of the traditional book in it’s leather bound, musty and tattered form, I can appreciate the innovations in technology to enhance the digital experience and make accessibility to literature a blessing rather than a curse.  Yes, digital books are immediate, pushing the limits of the imagination and endeavouring to capture the nuances of a new digital generation but, even with the advancements of skemorphism, designed to reflect the traditional reading experience, the tangible product of the book cannot be replaced.  The possession of an object of beauty and profound meaning which, is linked to our very humanity, regardless of age, gender or experience, is not quiet ready for it’s demise just yet.  Long live the book bound book!


The Grimoire, a very medieval concept.

Grimoires, the magical books in operation from as early as 12th Century and used by Magus to conjure the angelic and demonic, were used for the purposes of healing, cursing and self edification by means of ritual and sacred instruments.


The very materiality of the Grimoire itself was important in its construction, as an object which could not be bought or sold but bequeathed to individuals by means of legal agreement.  The books were written on virgin parchment.  All accouterments accompanying such must not have been used prior to the writing of the Grimoire either.  Some Grimoires that were covered in human skin were particular prized possessions.

The emphasis with these magical books was on their ability to hold power within their pages and could only affect their environment if they were hand written and not printed. It is the interjection of the human hand to write the spells down that gives the magus his ability to conjure from the book.  Perhaps it is in the act of writing that something of the person is left on the page?  Magic varies from learned to folk level and from Theurgy to Goetia of which the Grimoire may have held a varying degree of each.  The Magus would invoke divine authority to be able then to conjure a being from the demonic realms.  Plays such as Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Dr Faustus‘ are famous examples of the workings and purposes of the Magus in his search for complete knowledge.


While the Grimoire suffered in the 17th and 18th Centuries due to a decline in spiritualism and a rise in sciences, forms of low magic continued to play a part in the folklore of local communities.  Talismans and charms are well known products of Irish culture and continue even today in some communities.  Interestingly, the Grimoire is a book that would often be referred to as a ‘creature’, an independent entity with the existence of magic power within it.  My interest in ‘The Book of Margery Kempe‘, which refers to Margery herself in places as ‘this creatur’ harks to the spiritual nature of the time in which she lived and of her behaviour under the influence of the ‘visions’ she had throughout her life.

A recent article view here in the Guardian claims to have shed some light on the personage of Margery Kempe.  A small recipe for making lozenges to ease neurosis lies within the back pages of the manuscript; an indication of a treatment to control the psychosis of Margery’s incessant wailing and hallucinations.  A modern day anti-depressant perhaps?  Or could it be a medieval wise woman’s spell to cure the flux?  The oral tradition of folk magic would have been known to Margery but as a woman of God would she have consulted with these sorts of people?


The recipe is for ‘dragges’ small lozenges of herbs and spices which are boiled and cooled and eaten.  Although the recipe for such was most probably not found in a Grimoire, the magical properties which medieval communities believed they possessed are evidence of a form of low magic in the medieval text on which I have based my project.  The issue for me is to try and understand why this particular recipe appears on a copy of the manuscript and who put it there.


“For many of us, print books are part of what makes us readers, an exterior environment that habituates and prompts us.”

For Liedeke Plate, in an article entitled ‘How to Do Things with Literature in the Digital Age,’   the materiality of the book is expounded through Anne Carson’s recent work ‘Nox.’  Her article explores some of the issues surrounding the book’s form and the materiality of the printed page in post-modernist society.

According to Plate “Electronic digital computing ended the invisibility of books” (Plate, 3) by highlighting what is profoundly missing from the digital form, that being, its lack of aesthetic ‘bookishness.’  She draws attention to the fact that literature is now part of a broad media ecology and is only a single entity in the media experience as a whole.  However, ‘Nox‘ is a book which, like ‘House of Leaves’ claims heritage in the physicality of the book alone.  It cannot be reproduced for the digital age and must instead be touched by the reader and experienced as a concertina that unravels in the reader’s hands.  The “aesthetics of this bookishness may be a response to the digitization of our world” (Plate, 3) but this ‘convergence culture’ is unlikely to saturate the individuality of a book culture that continues to hark after authenticity and agency.  The material culture of books anthropomorphize texts and elevate the author and reader to a shared respect for subject and object.


Reading ‘Nox‘ felt a little intrusive and personal, uncomfortable even, as I felt the ‘lived experience’ Plate talks about by “pulling the reader into a private act of remembering within the public space of publishing.” (Plate, 8)

This is the magic with which Carson makes her experimental book work.  For me the handwritten elements of the text function “as a marker of authenticity, uniqueness, and personality” (Plate, 8) which make this book feel slightly voyeuristic in nature.  Plate sees this as more then just a text but a literary work which is deeply self-conscious of its materiality and appears unapologetic for this.

The books inability to sufficiently convey adequate translation of the interspersed poem Catullus’ 101, reflects Carson’s inability to fully express her grief for her dead brother both experiencing and lamenting the limits of language as form.  It is in the photography and fragmented scribbles by hand, that her work expresses and reflects upon post-modernist literary culture.  Stephen Burt calls it “an anti-book, about the futility of language in the face of death.” (Burt, London Review of Books 14/7/11)  As book culture transfigures with the aid of digital aesthetics, Luddites such as myself are being forced to take a second look at experimental literature with an open-mindedness that goes against the grain.  It would be easy to dismiss ‘Nox‘ as ‘kitsch’ and “a clever gimmick” (Plate, 14) but there is something deeply moving about it’s intimacy which cannot be ignored.  A box which will stand out among its contemporaries, I imagine it is one I will be tempted to lift down again and again.

“Technology is an essential factor in the history of type….but it is not the only important influence.”

Paul C Gutjahr and Megan L Benton, in their article “Reading the Invisible” suggest that all print is ‘marked’ by its topography and that typeface, as one of the material forms of the book, is inextricably linked to the meaning of a text.  As a technology the printing machine banished the medieval handwriting of the scribe to the archives, but in doing so, allowed printed typeface to become the still distinctive hand of particular printers, places and politics.

Was the coming of print a revolution or the natural progression of power and influence over the masses?  As the book moved from the Scriptoria thugh-latimer-presenting-the-bible-to-king-henry-viii-from-old-england-s-worthies-by-lordo learned academics and eventually into the hands of the general public, opportunities were seized by the powerful and influential to take the book and use it for their own ends.  Henry VIII is the best example of this, when in he suppresses Tyndale’s English bible, only to re-instate it years later to suit his newly reformed Protestant religion.

We are often unaware of the effects of typeface as text is continually re-imagined with every technological advancement.  The ability to apply meaning to typeface becomes more accessible as we move towards a digitally constructed society.  Mark Z Danielewski’s novel ‘House of Leaves’ suggests typeface and the printed page can be manipulated to confound or construct a deeper meaning to text.  His modern take on a horror novel plays on every contrived aspect of the literary tradition and book culture today.  In a very self-conscious attempt to negate the commentary, footnote and reliability of narrative voice, Danielewski asks the reader to suffer pages cluttered with meaningless text (although in the meaninglessness there is meaning) and exuberant amounts of white space were only one of two words dwell.  2211e0716872424393beca8b4b0a422dFonts are employed to represent the standardized culture in which the book has come to exist to the point where finding meaningful meaning is nearly impossible.  The uniformity of print is raped of personality and leaves little of the aesthetic imprints of the author’s hand.  Perhaps that is why the scribes hand is so revered today.  We enter our special collections libraries to handle carefully the intricate and delicate pages of the manuscript with respect for the hand that laboured over its making.  Something of that quality is lost in print and perhaps that is why in Danielewski’s novel we are so drawn to the invisible meaning between the pages.