The Electronic Labyrinth

The Book

The west has been called "the civilization of the book" (Derrida, Of Grammatology 3); our religions, philosophies, literatures, indeed our very conception of the world itself is inextricably woven into the idea of The Book. A book is only in the first place a physical object, "a collection of sheets of paper or other substance, blank, written or printed, fastened together as to form a material whole" (OED). More abstractly, a book, with its front and back cover, its first page and last, is a model of our desire for completion, wholeness, and closure. The very physical organization of a book, with pages bound to a centre spine, invites us to proceed through a text in linear, pre-determined manner, moving first from left to right across the page, then from page to page and chapter to chapter. The Book thus upholds our mutual fascinations with etiology and teleology, with beginnings and endings.

The idea of The Book that has come down to us through the exegetical study of the Book of God, The Bible, and its corollary, The Book of Nature; both are perceived to have fixed beginnings (Creation, or The Book of Genesis) and ends (Apocalypse, or The Book of Revelation) and to unfold in time according to a divinely ordained plot. The idea of The Book is devoted to the idea of an author who, existing prior to his or her book and standing outside language, guarantees its "true" meaning. "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last," announces God in Revelation 22.13. The Book thus harkens back to the time before the confounding of language at Babel (Gen. 11), to the unity of sign and referent: in it the world is still encoded, written-over by the pen of the divine Author, but meaning exists prior to and transcendent of the instabilities, the deceptions and ruses of language. Readers of The Book are thus conceived as passive receptors of the undiluted truth its author intended.

Recently, some writers haves announced The End of The Book, considering it the model of a readerly text and thus the antithesis not only of the open-endedness of hypertext, but of writing itself. Not all books are manifestations of The Book, but we should not lose sight of the fact that we continue to live in its shadow.

See also: Marshall McLuhan and The Gutenberg Galaxy.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
contact us