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The history of the book is a story about the interactions between humans and a material object. Today’s digital books appear to bring new levels of interactivity to the process of reading, with their touch screens, hyperlinks, and text annotation features. But book formats throughout history have always entailed specialized interaction, from scrolls and wax tablets to pocket diaries and three-ring binders, making the reader do, accomplish and experience particular things in the process of engaging with their physical designs.

This exhibition unfolds the history of the book as a material object through its interactive features. Here you will find a pocket book of herbal remedies with a hand-written index made by its owner, paper wheels (volvelles) that project and calculate the movements of the moon or calendrical time if you gently push them, and an oversized family bible inscribed and passed down by several generations. The exhibition is organized around the key maneuvers that bind and identify books structurally and conceptually as books across different time periods. These maneuvers are central to some of the most common forms of interaction that take place whenever a book is opened and engaged with: fill, gather, turn and use.

The books can easily fall into more than one category; acts of turning a book’s volvelle are also identifiable as acts of using the book, as with the Sefer ‘Evronot, the Jewish calendar book. The book categories in the exhibition are thus fluid, and the distinctions are interpretive ones, made according to which aspect of the book’s function seems to warrant emphasis given its design, purpose or history of use. Also fluid is the category of “book” itself, which can include forms resembling a book in its broadest definition—a portable object that gathers and communicates reproducible meaning—such as a child’s horn book and a lady’s fan bearing printed text, both from the eighteenth century. A non-codex book, such as Shelley Jackson’s hypertext fiction, Patchwork Girl is included as well.

By bringing together books from wide-ranging historical contexts through the gestures and actions carried out when engaging with them, the exhibition demonstrates the following: the “book” is a highly flexible and adaptable structure, and its material features are critical to its role as an interactive technology for thinking, making, imagining, connecting and living.

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