The Dimensions of the Printed Thing
by Sven Birkerts
I've been sitting here for the last half hour paging through an old hardcover of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, looking for a passage that I remembered in the night - that I had, indeed, figured as a tour de force preliminary to that whole massive saga. In this opening section, so it came to me, young Hans Castorp, the protagonist, stands before a daunting row of ancestral portraits, studying the features of his grand- and grand-grand- and grand-grand-grand-fathers and becomes overwhelmed by his apprehension of time receding. I looked and looked, but nothing. I did find something about an ancient baptismal basin, but no gallery. These failed connections are disconcerting. Had I turned that basin passage to my own uses, rewriting it completely, or was I just thinking of the wrong book? Or have I lost my mind? Pick one.
I think that what occasioned the memory - real or re-scripted - was a day I spent recently scrolling through the digital display of the Tables of Contents of all the AGNI back issues, making my way all the way back to the beginning. My purpose was practical - to earmark selections that our interns could use to write succinct blurbs for each. The effect, which reached me in stages, as the Mann episode illustrates, was my late-night reverie that was anything but practical.
Part of what I brooded on was the familiar but readily renewed recognition about the difference between screen and paper - the flattening and equalizing effects of the first and the space-time accordioning that happens with the second. You see, I'd been doing this scrolling right here in the office, in the 'library' room, fixated on the flow of identically-fonted issue listings. All around me, though I was for the time oblivious, were a number of the issues themselves, products of the many eras of their production. They were thin, thick, printed on different paper stock, various in their covers and ornamentation - but that afternoon I was not paying attention. The names streaming past me in the lit-up rectangle were typographically identical, and the world, for a time was mapped to that flatness.
Eventually I finished and closed my laptop, and it was all but inevitable that my gaze should re-focus and come to rest on what Kant called das Ding an sich, the thing-in-itself, or, in this case, the things in themselves. The wall of issues in their fine and variegated splendor. And in that sudden shift of perspective, it was suddenly possible to see - more clearly, perhaps, because of the abruptness of contrast - how each set of uniform citations became a separate issue, with its particularity of detail, its housing in time, but how it also suggested, from a certain angle of contemplation, its narrative.
I stopped to look through AGNI 8, which happened to be the first issue of the journal I ever encountered in Harvard Square, at a wonderful and long-gone shop called Reading International. I studied the droll, almost caricaturish cover-art by David Itchkawith, had a sensory memory of first reading "The Death of Descartes," the stunningly good novella by David Bosworth. The entire issue was a mere 120 pages, but for me, then - this was 1978 - it seemed a harbinger of some whole new outlook in the making.
I picked up AGNI 19 (1983, 136 pp.), with its curious cover graphic that spun stodgy tradition into something cooly modern, and its portfolio - a compact physical grouping - of new Irish poetry, curated and introduced by William Logan. And here, on the next shelf was AGNI 33, from 1991, a relative door-stopper weighing in at 318 pages. The cover was now all business, dense print making its thematic seriousness immediately evident, with Noam Chomsky, Peter Balakian (recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize), Susan Rubin Suleiman, Ha Jin...
So strange and interesting, how the cover stock, the type fonts, the texture of the paper - along with the contents, of course - can mysteriously hold a sense of the times, be their embodiment.
But in all this late-day pondering there was something else (isn't there always something else?), and that was the palpable sense I had of artists and careers in the making. I found so many writers who went on to become touchstones for readers, household names in the more literary households. As I ran my finger along the names in the Tables of Contents, which was not the same as scrolling, I had flashes of some of these writers in their fledgling days - when they were still sending their work with an S.A.S.E., when it was all quite new for them. Jhumpa Lahiri, Albert Goldbarth, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Claudia Rankine, Peter Balakian, Marie Howe, and Jorie Graham . . . The list obviously goes on.
Some of what I'm saying can also be deduced from those identical-looking T.O.C. pages I was glazing over, but what was missing - and how to measure it? - was the feeling of the time. I mean a narrative sense of arrival. I mean the pleasure of the heft, the satisfaction of the bound thing falling open to a carefully typeset page, and then the dawning awareness that these issues, in their array, are like a set of footprints left by an obscure imagined entity, some Yeti or angel of the collective spirit marching forward. I had, again, the old epiphany: that we should never forget that the third D of 3D is the spatial thickness that signals the fourth, Time itself.