The Fate of the Book

In books, the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies finds the intersection of science and humanities.

UT’s Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies, hosted by the English Department, is celebrating its fourth year with a lecture series on “The Fate of the Book.” During the 2012-2013 school year, TILTS will examine the role of books in a world of rapidly progressing technology. TILTS is co-directed by professors Elizabeth Scala and Janine Barchas.

“Books are the foundation of our University,” says Elizabeth Scala. “Their status and changing form are sure to have far-reaching effects on various levels of our intellectual community and its ways of learning and disseminating knowledge.”

The series kicked off Thursday with a lecture by author Nicholson Baker, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner. Baker stressed the importance of first editions and hard copies to the crowd in the Blanton Auditorium, which was packed with students, professors, and bookworms alike.

Showing slides of newspapers and microfilm, Baker demonstrated how the beauty of original color ads and illustrations was lost in the black-and-white digital copies. He argued not that we shouldn’t embrace new technology, but rather that “we don’t want to give the future our own transformed version of our time.”

“It’s not an argument against technology,” Scala points out. “This is an argument against human pride and too careless destruction.”

The following day, TILTS partnered with the Texas Advanced Computer Center to put a book under the University’s best microscopes. Appropriately, they chose the defining book about the microscope to examine: Richard Hooke’s Micrographia, published in 1665.

“Our aim was to know when a book stopped being a book and would be considered something else entirely,” Scala says.

Under a microscope, the book transforms. The seemingly solid paper gives way to gaps of air and interlaced linen strips. Pictures of the 17th-century paper were taken under a scanning electron microscope to show the true depth of what appears to be simply flat paper.

“To emphasize the potential for partnership between the humanities and technology, we were looking for a way to set both of those jewels together in our TILTS line-up for 2012-13,” Scala says. “We wanted to make rare books and supercomputing work together.”

The next TILTS event, featuring a panel of book preservers, will be at the Harry Ransom Center on Oct. 25.

Photo by Dwight Romanovicz, using a scanning electron microscope.


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