Tuesday, August 2, 2016

John Lurz's "The Death of the Book"

John Lurz is Assistant Professor of English at Tufts University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Death of the Book: Modernist Novels and the Time of Reading, and reported the following:
Given the recent rise of electronic readers like Apple’s iPad or Amazon’s Kindle, what is it about the book that makes some of us want to hold on to what might seem like an outdated media form? The Death of the Book looks at the way the literary works produced in the early twentieth century, which witnessed the rise of film as a challenge to the book’s cultural monopoly, had a few things to say about what makes books special. As works by Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf explore the role played by the book’s status as an object in the experience of reading, they position the book’s so-called death in terms that refer as much to a straightforward description of its future vis-à-vis other media form as to a more subtle sense of finitude that they share with and transmit to their readers.

Page 99 offers both a characteristic and a somewhat anomalous display of the inner workings of this larger argument. On the one hand, its discussion of an especially thorny moment in Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s famously abstruse last work, offers an example of the kind of attention that the novels in my study draw to their embodiment in the physical object of the book. On the other, the Wake’s peculiar idiom, which is made up of puns and portmanteaus that combine multiple meanings and sometimes even multiple languages, sets it apart from the other novels in my discussion. One of the things that this radical linguistic experimentation does however is to highlight the medium of print on which its transmission to a reader depends and to exhibit the extent to which the mental act of reading is always bound up with physical embodiment.

The particular passage discussed on page 99 stages this intertwining of the mental and the physical through a geometry lesson that, in a dreamlike twist, is also an investigation of a female body. Moreover, it explicitly connects physical embodiment to a kind of fundamental finitude that contributes to what I call “the death of the book:”
the textbook instructs us that, “You may spin on youthlit’s bike and multiplease your Mike and Nike with your kickshoes on your algebrars but, volve the virgil page and view, the O of woman is long when burly those two muters sequent her so from Nebob4 see you never stray who’ll nimm you nice and nehm the day” (270.22-28). Hardly a straightforward statement, this line suggests that, for all the abstract, mathematical tricks played with “Euclid’s bike” and its algebraic “handlebars,” turning the page reveals a concrete materiality embodied in a female “O.” This O is as much the origin of the world as it is also the very index of nothingness, a zero affirmed by the distorted mnemonic for remembering the declension of the Latin nemo or “no one” (“For nemo let me never say neminis or nemine”).
The “O of woman” that I touch on here is an instance in which Joyce’s work collapses issues of birth and death, creation and expiration, with its own typography. It’s a complicated and condensed example of the way that by attending to the death of the book we can bring it, paradoxically, to life.
Learn more about The Death of the Book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue