Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Word of the Month: Buchschmuck

Word of the Month: Index

We know by now that a Buch is a book. Schmuck means "jewelry", both the precious stuff you possess and the stuff you use to accessorize your person. The Schmuck in Buchschmuck is of the second kind: It's the sum of the graphical elements that have been added to a book's pages to enhance the status of the book as an artifact—the decoration of the title page; the special treatment of the first letters of a chapter etc. These features are not to be confused with illustrations intended to support the text—they have a practical purpose, Buchschmuck has not, in the narrow sense. It does not contribute to our understanding of the text, but it may contribute significantly to our enjoyment of the book as an object—it makes it more precious. I show, as an example, on the left the title pages of the edition of the Grimms' fairy tales that motivated me, in second grade, to teach myself the old-fashioned font called Fraktur in German.

I must confess that I have not seen the term Buchschmuck used in a long time. It sounds old-fashioned, harking back to a time when books were objects that could be considered precious. Are these days gone? Or, to put it differently, could eBooks have Buchschmuck? More generally, could they become carefully-crafted objects to be appreciated as such? I see no reason, in principle, why they couldn't.


Heika said...

I have loved all of your posts. But maybe because I am a big reader and even a sometime writer, I found this to be the most fascinating one because of the truly interesting questions it raises (although the word itself is a delight).

My take on the future preciousness of e-books is that they will never be seen as such. Part of what makes something precious, I think, is its transitory nature and digital books can always be re-created exactly as they were (or is that just my ignorance speaking?)

The other thing lacking is the sense of an object that can be touched. I was just reading a glowing review of two new books of game art that are apparently gorgeous to look at and the reviewer suggests that those big coffee table art books are going to go the way of the do do bird as more people look at art on their i-Pad or Kindle.

The comments in response were also positive but many said, no they would still buy the big art books because they wanted something to hold and flip through. For many people, and I am not one of them actually, books are a very tactile experience so a book that lacks that experience will not be seen as precious even if the images are high-res and glorious to look at.

This was a lovely post. I was beside myself when the Web first became open to ordinary people who could discuss their passions. Many of the web sites were just treasures, filled with text and images produced and gathered by people deeply interested in their subject matter.

Over the years though, the Web has gotten cluttered with so much personal revelation drivel and badly written trivia, I don't spend nearly as much time on it, but your site is such an exception to the general rule. I always turn to it to see what you have come up with, and I am never disappointed. But I must say, you have outdone yourself with this post.

Ulrich said...

@Heika: You are one of my oldest and most faithful readers, and I always appreciate your comments. So, let me start by thanking you, for your contributions over the years and for this particular comment, which is of my favorite kind: It challenges me to think carefully about a response.

It's true that with the spreading popularity of the web, it has become more of a mixed bag. In fact, one of the remarks I frequently make--only half in jest--is that misanthropes should stay away from it: It shows that there are so many idiots, jerks, and outright loonies out there that it can only strengthen someone's misanthropy.

What I miss, in particular, are more opportunities for extended discussions where an issue is being debated from different points of view. Personal blogs tend to attract people who share the point of view of the owner, and institutional blogs vet comments before publishing them, causing delays that make the give-and-take we know from face-to-face conversations impossible.

In this spirit, I'd like to respond in greater detail to what you said--in my next comment--this one is getting too long.

Ulrich said...

I’m not sure about the transitory nature of precious things—I can think of some that seem to be build to last forever, like jewel-encrusted shrines holding relics in medieval churches. But I did think about the ‘objectness’ of precious things—how important is it that we can perceive them as objects with their own integrity, as opposed to something that can be experienced only ‘inside’ another medium? We can hold books in our hands. This holds, in principle, also for artifacts that we cannot directly touch, like exhibits in a glass case: If we only had the key, we could get our hands on them. This tactile experience gets lost with eBooks—yes, interactive features may be responsive to touching, but the ‘object’ as such remains elusive, and it cannot be perceived as a precious object if it cannot even be perceived as an object.

This may be true. But I can also imagine that our sense of what an object is may change as our experience with digital media expands. For example, I downloaded on my iPad an app that retells the Frankenstein story in an interactive way (at crucial junctures in the plot, you are offered alternative paths for continuing the story). There is an underlying graphical design that pulls illustrations, text, and background together. I do experience this app as an object in its own right. This impression is helped, for sure, by the fact that the app starts with the reader opening a ‘virtual’ book, represented by a cover with a worn look, which reappears with each new chapter. But I do not believe this ruse is essential for experiencing the app as a distinct entity. More important, to me, is the sense that much thought went into its design—it comes across as something that has been carefully crafted, and this is independent of the fact that I have misgivings about the retelling of the story.

Here’s a counterexample: The Kindle version of Game of Thrones is sloppily put together. Apparently, the digital text was generated by scanning and interpreting a hard copy. The resulting text teems with misspelled words; for example, the location “Dorne” is often written “Dome”. It seems the scanner software had problems distinguishing between “rn” and “m”(or the original was of poor quality). Be this as it may, the publisher apparently never had the digital text proof-read, while charging more for it than for the paperback version (as one irate reviewer observed).

This brings me back to the notion of craft. I believe that eBooks have a chance of being perceived as precious, provided the same care went into their production that traditionally went into the production of beautiful books. I wouldn’t be surprised if this care turned out to be more important than the perceived status of an eBook as an object in the traditional sense. But at this time, this is speculation, as I’m the first to admit.