This piece is the introduction to the Full Stop Reviews Supplement #3. The issue includes some of our favorite reviews from the second half of 2017, as well as a special feature on the pdf document, including a short essay from media theorist Lisa Gitelman on the history of the pdf that reads the publishing of the Clinton-era Starr Report as an important point in that history, and a standalone pdf chapbook by poet/archivist Danny Snelson on Adobe co-founder John Warnock. A pdf of the issue is available to download, for an optional donation, here.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of downloading a brand new pdf. The thrill of anticipation in the moments between click and opening. The bright white glow. The smell clean and electric. The feel of scrolling through, slowly caressing the track pad, or else with a quick flick, letting the letters, the lines, the pages spin by.
We can talk about loss: the gap in the bookshelf. And we can talk about media apocalypse: the book and its ending. These are structures of thought shaped by the shape books take. There is the compulsion to skip to the final page. And there is the regret at arriving there and never being able to unknow.
But instead of treating the pdf as a site of loss, a dematerialization of the codex, this issue of the Full Stop Reviews Supplement posits the pdf as a material site of possibility. It asks: How is literature, authorship, and readership being reshaped by the technologies that enable writing’s production and distribution? In particular, how are writers and publishers using the pdf to create new work and forge new literary publics?
The meaning of texts is shaped by the material forms those texts take. These forms place a certain set of limits and affordances upon what it is possible to say, to think, to share. The emergence of movable type and the printing press made possible the modern author, the mass reproduction and distribution of ideas, the solitary silent reader who is nevertheless a member of a mass.
What does the pdf make possible? Who does the pdf make possible?
The pdf is a bureaucratic document, child of the nineties, raised in offices dreaming paperless dreams. As Lisa Gitelman points out in Paper Knowledge, the pdf is structured around clear corporate demarcations between content creator and consumer. Consider the case of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was caught attempting to falsify an income statement because of his inability to convert a pdf into a Word document on his own. In a world seen by the glare of the pdf document, it seems we’re all either form-makers or form-fillers.
But the pdf is also the mediator of contemporary publishing, a document whose history is integral for understanding our contemporary literary-media ecology. Consider the small press publishing workflows, the permissions forms, the catalogs, the press releases, the advanced review copies, etc.
Even as the pdf conditions the space of possibility for contemporary literature, it has become an important site of experimentation for writers and publishers to explore what the digital age means for the meaning and materiality of book, author, and reader. The low cost of producing and distributing pdf documents has helped enable the proliferation of small presses, challenging the mainstream publishing industry by circumventing its traditional gatekeepers. This is seen most clearly with pdf-centric presses like Open Humanities Press, Punctum Books, Essay Press’s EP series, and re-press, each of which embraces a philosophy of free and open access and provides a platform for experimental forms of inquiry seldom found in the book lists of more traditional trade or academic publishers. Other free pdf publishing projects such as Troll Thread, Gauss PDF, SOd Press, and Hysterically Real use the pdf to reflect upon and distort the codex form to which their documents both refer and differ, extending the tradition of artist books by liberally dousing it in internet kitsch and glitch.
In The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor warned against a techno-utopian vision which sees the internet as a wholly democratizing force. In fact, she shows how the internet has largely perpetuated and accentuated the inequalities that it purportedly dismantles. Such a critique is usefully applied to the pdf and its effect on contemporary publishing as well. As Troll Thread editor Holly Melgard recently argued, “Free isn’t equal.” Considering, for example, the pay gap between white men and women, and people of color, and queer folks, and trans folks, and disabled folks, reveals the limits to the space of possibility evoked by the pdf. And this may be why we don’t see folks who have been marginalized by mainstream publishing embracing the open access pdf press as an alternative platform.
In keeping with the Full Stop Literary Supplement’s aims to both feature and reflect upon contemporary small press literature, in addition to collecting together nineteen reviews originally published on Full Stop’s website, here we feature two potential genealogies of the pdf document format to limn its potentials and limits: an essay by media theorist Lisa Gitelman on the Starr Report as exemplary pdf, and a pdf “mixtape” by editor, writer, and archivist Danny Snelson on John Warnock, founder of Adobe Systems, native Utahn, and one of the world’s leading collectors of Shakespeare.
And as an experiment in the possibilities of the pdf format for book reviewing, we’ve included a selection of scans from our reviewers’ books. Sean Dockray notes in his essay “The Scan and the Export,” that the scan encodes much more than just a digital representation of a physical object. It also captures “indexes of past readings and the act of scanning itself.”
In these scans you can glimpse a future book review website where the essays have fallen away and you the reader are left to read scanned books alongside the marginalia, coffee stains, and highlights of your favorite critic. As with the used book, the lended book, these collections of traces constitute terms of intimacy. But in the infinite reproducibility of those traces, we perhaps get a clearer sense of the paradoxically intimate publics that literature creates today.
Read the rest of the issue here.
Print on Demand edition of Danny Snelson’s chapbook available here.