EVERY YEAR, IT SEEMS, we receive a new diagnosis regarding the viability of books in the digital age: print is dead, print is back, the bookstore is dead, bookstores are back. The nostalgia for and anxiety about print is often reactive, hinting at other anxieties about feeling lonely and disconnected in a time of hyper-connectivity. The fantasies we construct about the importance of the book are never too far afield from the fantasies we construct about the quality of social relationships before the internet. Yet, I may already have made a mistake: Who is “we” here, anyway? Are all of our attachments to the book the same? Who is erased in broad accounts of the printed book in the digital age? I will return to these questions momentarily.
For me, more interesting than the “death of the book” debate has been how artists and authors have experimented with and combined print and digital media to speak to the political and cultural concerns of the present. At times this takes the form of fetishizing the book, as Jonathan Safran Foer does in Tree of Codes (2010). Others have embraced the potentiality of ereading platforms in experimenting with the form of the novel, as with the approach taken by Steve Tomasula in TOC: A New Media Novel (2009). In Between Pen and Pixel, a 2019 Eisner nominee in the category of Best Scholarly Work, Aaron Kashtan persuasively argues that comics are the medium that offers the most insights about the present and the future of the book, largely because of their inescapable physicality. Kashtan writes that, with novels, “we as readers are unlikely to pay attention to the physical attributes of the text we read — unless the author or typographer intentionally calls our attention to those attributes, as in the present sentence.” However, in comics, “the effect of materiality is much harder to ignore. If we want to know how the reading experience will be transformed by changes in its material context, we need to be looking at comics.”
Attentive to the particular reading experiences different formats evoke, Between Pen and Pixel tells a fascinating story of how comics artists have responded to what Kashtan calls the “crisitunity” of ereaders. By this he means the way in which such readers “not only [create] a sense of impending crisis but also [provide] creators with a previously absent incentive to explore the unique affordances of print.” Analyzing a wide-ranging archive of comics, Kashtan narrates the technological sea change comics have undergone in the past decade, which includes, among other things, the development of “guided view” technology for reading them. Kashtan discusses some responses to this sea change, including comics by Carla Speed McNeil and Lynda Barry that “fetishize the print book and engage in anticipatory mourning of its inevitable death”; comics that build multiple narratives and reading experiences across print and digital platforms, like Matt Kindt’s Mind MGMT series; and comics that experiment on both print and digital platforms to make them indispensable to one another, like Chris Ware’s Touch Sensitive and Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile.
In my favorite chapter, Kashtan challenges readers’ underlying assumptions and biases about print through an analysis of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Because of the form’s supposed immediate connection to the artist’s hand, some comic readers and critics have suggested comics offer a privileged site for intimacy and authenticity — an increasingly sought after and precious aesthetic commodity in the digital age. But Kasthan persuasively argues that those who have read Fun Home in this manner are mistaken. He takes particular issue with arguments that Bechdel’s use of handwriting brings us closer to the character of Alison’s “selfhood, subjectivity, and personality,” in contrast to the cold, mechanical typewriting with which Alison comes out to her parents because, as she says, “we were that sort of family.” Eschewing this opposition, Kashtan argues for a more “complex interplay between actual and apparent touch” figured by Bechdel’s use of handwriting and typewriting in the text.
First, Kashtan demonstrates that Alison’s mother’s experience with the typewriter, within a larger context of women’s history with the typewriter, infuses Alison’s coming out letter with meaning by connecting “them both to a tradition that includes the exploitation as well as the empowerment of women.”
Kashtan further notes that “all the typewritten documents appearing in Fun Home were laboriously hand copied by Bechdel,” contending that “the fact that she put so much effort into recreating these documents” makes clear that “she views them not as anonymous mechanical texts but as cherished testaments to the past.” And by the same token, what the reader might naïvely mistake for handwriting is actually a digital font that Bechdel used to save time. In this way, Kashtan shows how the interplay between handwriting and typewriting feeds richer thematic understandings of a book that, after all, concerns itself with the “play between reality and appearance” central to both her father’s closeted life and her own coming out experience. As Kashtan superbly puts it,
If the reader is fooled by the digital font and mistakes it for hand lettering […] it means that Alison’s depiction of herself is to some extent a façade, an artifice designed to appear to be something it’s not, much like Bruce Bechdel’s carefully constructed persona.
Kashtan concludes his analysis of Fun Home by considering the role of physical books in the story. Kashtan notes that Alison uses books as sexual props while Bruce shares books with his students in an effort to seduce them. Within the book, he notes, “the exchange of books is a physical exchange […] A book given as a gift is a memento of its former owner, and, specifically, the physicality of the book is a reminder of its owner’s unique body.” To underscore this point, Kashtan invokes a lovely Walt Whitman quote, one that he actually uses multiple times in Between Pen and Pixel: “Camerado! This is no book / Who touches this, touches a man; / (Is it night? Are we here alone?) / It is I you hold, and who holds you; / I spring from the pages into your arms.”
Kashtan uses this moment to transition into a broader argument about different reading experiences of Fun Home across different print and digital editions of the book. However, I want to put some pressure on this moment in order to ask: what is lost when we universalize bookishness?
Whitman, like Bruce and Alison, is not exemplary of a general, universal attachment to books, but of an attachment particular to those whose sexuality is socially foreclosed. In Disseminating Whitman, Michael Moon persuasively argues that Whitman constructs his poetic (and bookish) technique in order to be understood by some (gay, male) readers, and missed by others who would persecute him for his sexuality. In a study of Henry James influenced by Moon, Jonathan Flatley describes this intentional obfuscation of meaning as a request for readers to “read into” the language and “to imagine acts, emotions, and modes of contact that are only hinted at.” With this in mind, reading into Whitman’s line repeated in Between Pen and Pixel, we see not the universalizing and nostalgic ethos of bookish intimacy, but quite the opposite. We see the book as a desperate call into the future, where two men — “(Is it night? Are we here alone?)” — can actualize an intimacy socially foreclosed in their historical present. And, although Whitman imagined the book as an invitation for queer intimacy, Black scholars have shown that he did not extend that invitation to readers of color, primarily African-American readers.
Of course, the dynamic that Moon and Flatley describe is crucial to Fun Home and to the way in which Bechdel figures literature and books in the text. Alison searches through her father’s books, “reading into” her father’s highlighted passages and searching for clues to better understand him and his experience with his sexuality. Reading into the works of Radclyffe Hall and Anaïs Nin also crucially helps Alison to come to an understanding of her own sexuality. As Alison puts it, “My realization at nineteen that I was a lesbian came about in a manner consistent with my bookish upbringing.”
As we pull back and think about the broader implications of the present and future of books — why we love books or why books matter in the digital age — it may make sense to resist the general and instead center the particularity of readers’ attachments to the materiality of the book and to digital media. To note, this is not to find fault with Kashtan’s argument about comics or the crucial role it might play in helping us to imagine the future of the book. Indeed, it is the very structure of Kashtan’s story that inspired me to ask these questions. For, as often as we associate the anxieties over the future of the printed book with crotchety men — I’m thinking Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies or really anything by Jonathan Franzen — Kashtan’s archive crucially, and not coincidentally, foregrounds queer and female comics artists like Bechdel, MacNeill, and Barry. And it suggests that while male artists like Kindt and Ware found a home in digital experimentation, their queer, female counterparts continued to invest in and celebrate the physical book.
This is, of course, a bit of an oversimplification. As Kashtan points out, webcomics have played a crucial role in introducing various forms of diversity into the comics world. But the implicit presence of a kind of queer materiality in the works that Kashtan describes makes clear that we need not read between the lines to see the impact of gender and sexuality on our attachments to books, or the parameters by which we relate to the “crisitunity” of digital media. Though there is an apparently insatiable demand for broad declarations about the future of the book, there is also an obvious limit to universalizing such claims. Tending to diverse archives of bookish and digital texts, exposing the social relations they imagine and embrace and those they foreclose, is a project of particularity. What sustains our attachment to books? How will we relate to what comes after? It depends: who is we?