The Impermanent Book

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A few months ago Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Freedom, was quoted by The Telegraph from his Cartagena’s Hay Festival presentation:

“Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing - that’s reassuring… and he goes on … Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.” 

His speech raised heated discussions in newspaper columns and on the internet. The focus was mainly on defending technology and e-books as a viable and improved evolution, and on how he was being retrograde.  What was missing from the discourse was the fact that technology has also violently altered printed books in a way from which there is no return. We are so disconnected from the means of production that nobody seems to be aware that books are produced very differently then they were 100 years ago. Digital files are exchanged between writers, publishers and printers all over the world.

In the context of the Piracy Project, which we initiated in London in 2010, we discovered cases, which not only took control over the object, but over the content. Inspired by Daniel Alarcon's article in Granta magazine, “Life Among Pirates”, we traveled to Peru and discovered, for instance, a pirated version of Jaime Bayly’s novel No se lo digas a nadie with two extra chapters added. This physical object may look obviously pirated to a trained eye but could easily pass as the original if you were not looking for differences. The extra chapters are good, good enough to pass undetected by readers. 

right: No se lo digas a nadie by Jaime Bayly; left pirated copy with two extra chapters added by an anonymous writer. Bought in Lima Peru, The Piracy Collection

These books are sold in small markets, bookshops or by street vendors at traffic crossings. We had to buy several books and to compare page by page until we found a book with extra content. Asking the vendors for help didn’t work. They were quite offended with the insinuation that they carried modified books. Buyers don’t want to read a book by an anonymous author when they are buying Mario Vargas Llosa.  

Friends in Peru seemed extremely surprised to see an altered book. The same type of trust that Franzen had applied to printed books was broken. What have they been reading? According to popular literary theory, when reading a book we become joint authors by virtue of subjectively interpreting and shifting the context through our own personal sets of experience. In this sense, it might be very difficult to realize, in discussion with others, whether or not the book you just read has been altered. And then what happens when that seed of distrust is planted in your head? 

 

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The Piracy Project

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Sissu Tarka, Pirate Affect, 2008

The Piracy Project was initiated by AND Publishing as a result of a threat to close down the Byam Shaw Library at Central Saint Martins school of art in London, where AND is located. AND's website defines the Piracy Project as "an international publishing and exhibition project exploring the philosophical, legal and practical implications of book piracy and creative modes of reproduction." What this means in practice is a series of suggestions to the way we interact with books, all of which are archived on the project's website, as well as distributed and exhibited by AND Publishing.

Could book piracy be considered a methodology? At a time when discussions about book piracy have proliferated mainly as a result of the rising popularity of e-readers (so often described as the publishing industry's saviors), the publishing industry found itself in a position similar to that of the music and film industries, both of which have been fighting piracy unsuccessfully for a long time. Still, somehow, book piracy always seemed a little different. True, it has its quirks, like illegal translations done from a language other than the original or chapters added in to an illegal version. But maybe book piracy seems different because in a way, we have all pirated books. We read PDFs that a university professor scanned from his or her private copy of a book, including their comments in the margins. We try to interpose open pages on Amazon and those on Google Books in order to get the information we are looking for. Somehow, it seems more acceptable; when a professor scans a few chapters from a private copy it is deemed "fair use," and thus not a copyright infringement, because it is done for educational reasons. But the habit ...

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5 Million Dollars 1 Terabyte (2011) - Manuel Palou

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5 Million Dollars 1 Terrabyte (2011) is a sculpture consisting of a 1 TB Black External Hard Drive containing $5,000,000 worth of illegally downloaded files. A full list of the files with clickable download links can be found here.

 

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