Long Live the Book: Jessica Pressman’s Bookishness

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People don’t always quote poetry in the movies, but when they do—more often than you might think—it seems they’ve got a lot of it memorized.

When appearing before a government panel in the James Bond movie Skyfall (2012), Judi Dench’s M uses her finger to follow her written testimony until she looks up and recites a passage from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” that she has “despite [her] best intentions” memorized. While delivering the eulogy for Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Matthew holds a piece of paper—but, like M, he doesn’t need it to recite from memory the entirety of W.H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues.” Likewise, when Antwone gives a poem to Dr. Davenport in Antwone Fisher (2002), Davenport begins by reading aloud from the page and Antwone, without needing to look at the paper himself, joins in reciting. At poetry night at The Sanctuary in Love Jones (1997), Nina, too, begins by reciting from her notebook but closes it to recite her poem’s final lines from memory. Sylvester Stallone’s action-hero crew chants part of Vachel Lindsay’s poem “The Congo” from memory near the end of The Expendables 2 (2012). And on their first date in Madea’s Family Reunion (2006), Frankie puts Vanessa on the spot by signing her up to read at “Poets and Painters Night,” but she’s largely unfazed by the surprise because—you guessed it—she’s got a poem memorized.

In Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age, Jessica Pressman charts a pervasive cultural and aesthetic trend beginning around the year 2000, when anxieties about the Y2K bug, paired with the introduction of now-familiar digital platforms and environments—Google, Wikipedia, Web 2.0, the Kindle, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.—spawned a complex set of new relationships to books, paper, and ways of reading and writing that the digital age was appearing to challenge, occlude, or even replace. Anyone working with books and paper during that time will remember the anxious prognostications and decline narratives that digital media seemed to be precipitating: the end of print, the end of books, the end of bookstores and libraries, the end of newspapers, the end of reading as we knew and loved it. Bookishness reveals how writers and other artists registered this sense of ending, explored its implications, and sometimes managed to discover new life for print and the book in the process.

Taken as a whole, the scenes from the movies mentioned above can be seen as one way of responding to predictions of print’s imminent demise. Despite the oncoming digital revolution, they suggest, poetry won’t just live on but offers a deeply human alternative to the machine-driven forces of digital data storage and information management. People give up their papers and notebooks because, as it turns out, they don’t need the besieged page to know their verse after all, nor does poetry need paper. In these scenarios, poetry is a force for human-to-human connection, authenticity, action, memory, and expression that the digital can’t erase or replicate. (This is one reason why the possibility of computer-generated poetry still feels like an especially charged subject.)

Nowhere is this symbolically clearer than in the Skyfall scene, where M—embodying the old ways of doing things—defends the 00 section she manages to a panel that deems it “irrelevant” in a world without easily identifiable, nation-based superpowers. “Our enemies are no longer known to us,” she explains. “They do not exist on a map”—read: paper—but are faceless, opaque, and shadowy. “How safe do you feel?” she asks, and in her question and the movie more generally, we feel not only the threat of identity theft, cybercrimes, shady digital transactions, the dark web, and digitally enabled terrorism but the threat of digitality itself. For her, the content of Tennyson’s poem displays the strength, wisdom, constitution, and weaponry needed to respond, and so does the “old way” of knowing it—by heart:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Improbably, Skyfall makes “Ulysses”—a poem written in 1833—into a poem about the persistence of non-digital media in the present day.

If M and her poetry-reciting peers respond to the threat of the digital by showing that they don’t need the books or paper that new technologies seem poised to replace, then Pressman shows how another cultural impulse from that time was to not give up on the paper book but instead to fetishize and double down on it. The familiarity and comfort of the physical book, she argues, became a newly charged symbol in dealing with and responding to anxieties and fears associated with the unknown of digital media. In fact, two of her chapters—“Shelter” and “Weapon”—fit right into the world of Skyfall. In “Shelter,” she points out, writers repeatedly portrayed the act of reading from a physical book as a type of refuge from the digital era’s “constant crisis of information overload” and as a way of coping with the “intertwined, syllogistic threats” of terrorism and digitality, especially in relation to the 9/11 attacks. In other words, if you can’t wrap your head around the world, then stay at home and wrap your hands around a book. And in “Weapon,” she examines two experimental books from the 2000s that “allegorize fears of the invisible and viral ways that digital information moves” In other words, the book (much like James Bond) has been relevant for a long, long time and has reinvented itself again and again, so you know it’ll adapt this time around to help fight back.

Elsewhere, Pressman explores how “the book’s foretold obsolescence” wasn’t a death knell but generated “creative acts that engage the physicality of the book within a digital culture.” Digital networks turned out to be more hospitable to print than many people expected, and Pressman offers examples of innovative physical books meant to be used with digital or screen interfaces. And she shows how fine artists have used the book as material to sculpt, cut into, and reshape to a range of ends. In a lecture on “The Death of Print?” that he delivered at Columbia University in 1999, editor Dan Okrent opined, “Books? Every one of us in this room could write an anthem to the book. The feel of a fine binding, the smell of newly opened pages, the satisfying heft of a book in your hands—can anything top it?” That fetishization isn’t brand new, but Pressman argues it has increased in pitch, manner, and cultural reach since 2000. Re-aestheticized, books have emotional, nostalgic, sensory significance—a look, feel, smell, and heft—that writers, artists, readers, and consumers are exploring with an intensity they wouldn’t have experienced were it not put into sharp relief by digital media.

Bookishness hooks its reader with what Pressman calls “kitschy” examples of how popular and commodity culture has fetishized the book—cell phone covers made to look like leather-bound books, cupcakes with book-based frosting designs, a necklace of miniature books, a headboard made from books, and so on. Except for a few moments in a chapter on “Fakes,” however, Bookishness is mostly concerned, and usually in a celebratory way, with literary fiction, experimental literature, a few short films, and the fine arts, and not so much with popular culture. That said, it gets a reader thinking. I remembered, for example, the music video for Pink’s “U + Ur Hand” (2006) in which a funky erotic book opens up to tell the story of Lady Delish via floating, dematerializing letters, and I also remembered the similarly bookish video for Taylor Swift’s “The Story of Us” (2011), both of which were released in the middle of the fifteen-year period (2000-2015) that is Bookishness’s focus. It made me think about the movie Before Sunset (2004), which opens when Celine shows up at a Paris bookstore while Jesse is signing physical copies of his book, and also about two bookstore workers who romance each other online in You’ve Got Mail (1998). It made me wonder about the books in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (2011) video game and how the first time that players encounter the Scrolls themselves is not in the first three installments dating back to the mid 1990s, but in the fourth installment, Oblivion, which started development in 2002 and was released in 2006. It made me think about the recent uproar responding to the Marie Kondo Twitter meme that falsely reported Kondo advising, “ideally, keep less than thirty books.” The startlingly effective opening tease of Bookishness—those deliciously bookish cupcakes and cell phone covers, along with Pressman’s claim that “bookishness is omnipresent” in “a culture grappling with its own increasing digitization”—is a sign of Bookishness’s relevance, strength, and appeal. That Bookishness doesn’t follow up on its pop-culture tease is also, for this reader, a source of disappointment.

For all of its literary and academic focus, neither does Bookishness make much of poetry—a genre that isn’t as bound to the print or electronic book as fiction is but that nonetheless prizes the “slim volume” as a sign of permanence and career accomplishment. (The fact that oftentimes “book=novel,” as Pressman puts it, makes Bookishness partly a study of how a specific genre of writing has been shaped by digitality.) I couldn’t help but wonder what Bookishness would have made of the fact that Def Poetry Jam debuted its televised performances of poets reciting from memory in 2002, including one particularly memorable 2004 performance by Saul Williams, who abandons his handwritten paper “scroll” midway through “Coded Language.” I wondered about the impulse behind the 2006 formation of the NEA’s Poetry Out Loud competition in which high school students recite memorized poems, and I thought about how the formatting options for Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s self-publishing platform, are so much more conducive to prose than poetry. And boy did I think about the popular and financial cross-media success of Instapoets like Rupi Kaur (who has 4.3M Instagram followers) and Atticus (1.5M followers), but also and especially Tyler Knott Gregson (353K Instagram followers) for whom the cultivated effect of bookishness—Gregson produces typewritten verses on assorted fragments of paper and index cards with rips, folds, wrinkles, notebook holes, and stains—is often part and parcel of their appeal.

At one hundred and fifty pages, Bookishness can’t cover everything. It’s a quick, timely, provocative read that—as with the command “Don’t think of pink elephants”—readers won’t be able to walk away from seeing the world the way they did going in. It opens a field of inquiry that stretches to the far corners of culture. “Look there,” one wants to say, pointing at another example of bookishness. And there. And there! Bookishness makes one want to make such lists and then shout—er, write down on paper—The book is dead, long live the book!

Mike Chasar is the author of Poetry Unbound: Poems and New Media from the Magic Lantern to Instagram (2020) and Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America (2012). A 2016 National Endowment for the Humanities fellow and a 2015 Library of Congress Kluge Center fellow, he is an associate professor of English at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where he is working on his next book about the poetry of song lyrics. More from this author →