History and Future of the Book (Fall 2014 Digital Studies Course)

A tentative syllabus for DIG 350: History & Future of the Book, a course just approved for the Digital Studies program at my new academic home, Davidson College. Many thanks to Ryan Cordell, Lisa Gitelman, Kari Kraus, Jessica Pressman, Peter Stallybrass, and many others, whose research and classes inspired this one.

DIG 350: History & Future of the Book

Course Description

A book may only be made of paper, cardboard, ink, and glue, but it is nonetheless a remarkable piece of technology—about which we have mostly forgotten it is a piece of technology. This class is concerned with the long history, the varied present, and the uncertain future of the book in the digital age.

We will approach the history of the book in the most materialist way possible. In other words, when we say “books,” we don’t mean novels. We don’t mean texts. We mean books, the actual physical objects. Books have heft. They burn. They mildew. They smell. Their shape and design limit certain uses and encourage others. Similarly, books in the future—or whatever replaces books—will foster certain practices over others.

Over the course of the semester History and Future of the Book will return again and again to three central questions: (1) What is the history of the book as a physical and cultural object? (2) How have current disruptions in reading and writing technology changed the way we use and imagine books? (3) What does the future of the book look like?

Along the way we will consider reading and writing innovations such as electronic paper, e-readers, touchscreen interfaces, DIY publishing experiments, and place-based authoring. We will also address what some critics call the phenomenon of bookishness in contemporary culture—an exaggeration of the most “bookish” elements of a book, which may represent either the last dying gasp of the printed book or herald a renaissance of the form

Learning Goals

By the end of the semester, students will be able to do the following:

  • Evaluate key moments in the development of the book as a technological form
  • Compare the affordances of different forms of textual technology (clay, scrolls, paper, books, screens, and so on)
  • Dramatize the ways books and other technological forms reconfigure social practices
  • Propose speculative designs for the future of the book
  • Construct a technologically-enhanced book
  • Question the significance of “extreme” reading and writing technologies

Required Reading

Other Required Material

Note: every student in DIG 350 will be issued an iPad for the duration of the semester. In addition to Meanwhile, students will selectively purchase and study two or three other relevant apps. Possibilities include LetterMPress, Strange Rain, Device 6, 18 Cadence, and A Humument.

Required Work

The graded work for DIG 350 will take several forms, detailed below: (1) class participation; (2) semi-weekly blogging; (3) an alternative House of Leaves model; (4) a book enhancement; (5) a mobile library design; (6) a comparative analysis final paper.

(1) This class places a high premium on participation. It is essential that everyone has carefully considered the day’s material, attends class, and participates. I also expect students to bring the day’s readings to class, well-marked up with notes and annotations. Daily attendance is crucial for full participation. More than two absences will lower your class participation grade by at least one letter grade. More than five absences will result in a zero for your class participation grade. Participation is worth 10% of your final grade.

(2) Each student will contribute to the class blog. There will be 15 prompts throughout the semester, and each student will respond to 10 of these. Each post should be approximately 400 words. See the blog evaluation guidelines below. Blogging is worth 20% of your final grade.

(3) Every student will design an alternative form of House of Leaves, a book that epitomizes the phenomenon of bookishness. The Alternative House of Leaves model is worth 20% of your final grade

(4) The book enhancement is a creative and critical engagement with the physical form of the book, using soft circuits or another type of I/O sensor to “hack” the book. The enhancement will be accompanied by a reflective statement. The book enhancement is 20% of your final grade.

(5) The speculative design of a technologically-enhanced mobile library, in collaboration with Caitlin Christian-Lamb, the Associate Archivist in the library. The mobile library design is worth 10% of your final grade.

(6)   The final paper will be comparative analysis of a single or group of similar textual objects across print and digital forms. The final paper is worth 20% of your final grade.


The final grade will be calculated in the following manner:

  • Participation: 10%
  • Blogging: 20%
  • House of Leaves alternative: 20%
  • Book Enhancement: 20%
  • Speculative Library Design: 10%
  • Final Project: 20%

I will evaluate the blog posts according to the following 0-4 point scale:

4 Exceptional. The blog post is focused and coherently integrates examples with explanations or analysis. The post demonstrates awareness of its own limitations or implications, and it considers multiple perspectives when appropriate. The post includes at least one rhetorically useful image or media clip that illustrates—rather than trivializes—its point.
3 Satisfactory. The blog post is reasonably focused, and explanations or analysis are mostly based on examples or other evidence. Fewer connections are made between ideas, and though new insights are offered, they are not fully developed. The post reflects moderate engagement with the topic.
2 Underdeveloped. The blog post is mostly description or summary, without consideration of alternative perspectives, and few connections are made between ideas. The entry reflects passing engagement with the topic.
1 Limited. The blog post is unfocused, or simply rehashes previous comments, and displays no evidence of student engagement with the topic.
0 No Credit. The blog post is missing, late, or consists of one or two disconnected sentences.

Every other assignment will be given a letter grade that has a percentage equivalent:

A = 95% /A- = 90%
B+ = 88% / B = 85% / B- = 80%
C+ = 78% / C = 75% / C- = 70%
D+ = 68 / D = 65% /F = below 60%

Inclusive learning

I am committed to the principle of inclusive learning. This means that our classroom, our virtual spaces, our practices, and our interactions be as inclusive as possible. Mutual respect, civility, and the ability to listen and observe others carefully are crucial to inclusive learning.

Any student with particular needs should contact Nance Longworth (x2129), the Academic Access and Disability Resources Coordinator, at the start of the semester. The Dean of Students’ office will forward any necessary information to me. Then you and I can work out the details of any accommodations needed for this course.

Academic Integrity

Students at Davidson College abide by an Honor Code. The principle of academic integrity is taken very seriously and violations are treated gravely. What does academic integrity mean in this course? Essentially this: when you are responsible for a task, you will perform that task. When you rely on someone else’s work in an aspect of the performance of that task, you will give full credit in the proper, accepted form.

Another aspect of academic integrity is the free play of ideas. Vigorous discussion and debate are encouraged in this course, with the firm expectation that all aspects of the class will be conducted with civility and respect for differing ideas, perspectives, and traditions. When in doubt (of any kind) please ask for guidance and clarification.

Classroom Courtesy

While this course embraces the digital world it also recognizes that digital tools and environments complicate personal interactions. Studies have shown that students who use laptops in class often receive lower grades than those who don’t. Even more worrisome are studies that show laptop users distract students around them. I permit laptops and tablets in class, but only when used for classroom activities, such as note-taking or class readings. Occasionally I may ask students to turn off all digital devices.

Text messaging or other cell phone use is unacceptable. Any student whose phone rings during class or who texts in class will be responsible for kicking off the next class day’s discussion.

Late arrivals or early departures from class are disruptive and should be avoided.


DIG 350 Calendar


Week 1 (August 25, 27 and 29)

  • Key Concepts: book history
  • Robert Darnton, “What is the History of Books?” in Daedalus 111:3 (1982): 65-83
  • In-class activity: Writing in Clay
  • Leah Price, “You are What You Read,” New York Times, 2007

Week 2 (September 1, 3, and 5)

  • Key Concepts: paper and printing as technologies
  • Visit to Special Collections
  • Selections from Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800 (1976)

Week 3 (September 8, 10, and 12)

  • Key Concepts: (dis)continuity and affordances
  • Guest Speaker: Dr. Tyler Starr, Assistant Professor of Art
  • Bonnie Mak, How the Page Matters (Introduction and Chapter 1)
  • Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (pp. 1-40)
  • Joseph Dane, “On the Continuity of Continuity: Print Culture Mythology and the Type of the Gutenberg Bible” from Out of Sorts: On Typography and Print Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011)

Week 4 (September 15, 17, and 19)

  • Key concepts: materiality of forms
  • Peter Stallybrass, “Books and Scrolls: Navigating the Bible” from Books and Readers in Early Modern England (2011)
  • In-class activity: Simulating a medieval scriptorium
  • Gerard Genette, “Introduction” in Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997), 1-15.
  • Johanna Drucker, “The Artist’s Book as a Rare and/or Auratic Object” from The Century of Artists’ Books, pp. 92-120


Week 5 (September 22, 24, and 25)

  • Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
  • Johanna Drucker, “The Codex and Its Variations” from The Century of Artists’ Books, pp. 121-159
  • Johanna Drucker, “Experimental Typography as a Modern Art Practice” from The Visible Word, pp. 91-104

Week 6 (September 29, October 1 and 3)

Week 7 (October 6, 8, and 10)

  • House of Leaves
  • * House of Leaves Alternative Model Due *

Week 7 (October 13, 15, and 17)

  • Key Concepts: comics and ergodic works
  • Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (pp. 1-23)
  • Jason Shiga, Meanwhile
  • Choose Your Own Adventure mapping

Week 8 (October 20, 22, and 24)

  • * Mobile Library Speculative Design *

The Future

Week 9 (October 27, 29, and 31)

  • Key Concepts: digitization and deterioration
  • Whitney Anne Trettien, A Deep History of Electronic Textuality: The Case of English Reprints Jhon Milton Areopagitica, Digital Humanities Quarterly 7.1 (2013)
  • Gooding, P., M. Terras, and C. Warwick. “The Myth of the New: Mass Digitization, Distant Reading, and the Future of the Book.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 28.4 (2013): 629–639.
  • Bonnie Mak, “Archaeology of  a Digitization” from  Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology (2014)

Week 10 (November 3, 5, and 7)

Week 11 (November 10, 12, and 14)

  • Key Concepts: audio books and haptic interfaces
  • Matthew Rubery, “Play It Again, Sam Weller: New Digital Audiobooks and Old Ways of Reading” Journal of Victorian Culture (2008)
  • Matthew Rubery, “Canned Literature: The Book after Edison” Book History (2013)
  • Meanwhile and Strange Rain apps
  • * Book Enhancement Due *

Week 12 (November 17, 19, and 21)

Week 13 (November 24, 26, and 28)

  • Thanksgiving Break

Week 14 (December 1, 3, and 5)

  • Key Concepts: Emulation and a Return to Materiality
  • Nick Montfort, Emulation as Game Facsimile (2011)
  • Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, “Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers” (2009)

Week 15 (December 8 and 10)

  • Work on Final Paper, due at the end of the exam period

Header image: az. D-221 Books, October 16, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/azrasta/5088254388/.

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