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Bob Brown, The Readies, Edited and with an Afterword by Craig Saper

The Readies

by Bob Brown, Edited by and with an Afterword by Craig Saper
Rice University Press, Houston, TX, 2009
96 pp. Perfect-Bound, $15.00; Trade-Laminate, $25.85;  Trade-Dust Jacket, $32.35; Wire-O, $16.00; eBook $7.00
ISBN: 978-0-89263-022-6; ISBN: 978-0-89263-023-3; Wirebound: 978-0-89263-024-0.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Bob Brown's ‘The Readies', a 1930 avant-garde manifesto written in the US by a prolific author and published at his expense in a very small copy run in Germany, has longtime been a mythical text, often mentioned, rarely quoted in a more than allusive manner, almost never really read, even by the specialists of Modernism (in this regard, Brown's position is not deprived of analogies with that of the Belgian founder of documentalism, Paul Otlet, whose ideas on the universal library, now rediscovered due tot the efforts of his biographer Françoise Levie, came two decades before Vannevar Bush's 'How We Might Think'). A forerunner of all kind of photographical and electronic ways of reading and writing literature, from the microfilm to the iPad and many other devices, Brown's amazing speculations and cultural thinking can now finally be read and discussed thanks to the efforts of many people: first, scholars such as Michael North, who have recently contributed to the new interest in the figure of Bill Brown (a bigger than life character, whose multiple activities in the field of the publishing industry merit an in-depth analysis in themselves); second, the series editors of the important 'Literature by Design Series' at Rice University Press, Jerome McGann and Nicholas Frankel, who give a new life to literary works of the period 1880-1930 that foreground the book and the visual nature of language (the key role of typography in Modernism has been obscured by contemporary reprints and trade editions, but is now again gaining large critical attention); third, the editor of this volume, Craig Saper, who not only wrote a brief illuminating essay for the book, but who offers on the website www.readies.org an electronic simulation of the machine imagined, yet not realized, by Bill Brown (as so many visionaries ahead of their times, the author of ‘The Readies’ could only imagine the revolutionary force of his ideas, which have now more or less entered mainstream cyberculture).

The readies, a term coined by Brown in his manifesto, refer to the technical and cultural revolution that has modified both the word and the image in the early 20th Century, when first the cinema and then radio produced new forms of communication that, according to Brown, were about to make the traditional book totally obsolescent. Newer forms, better adapted to the speed of modern life, had to be invented, and the reading machine imagined by Brown was clearly one such example. The readies were imagined as a machine that would print type microscopically on a transparent tissue roll while enabling the reader to unroll it at his or her preferred speed beneath a strong magnifying glass. At the same time, the readies were also the texts registered on the ribbon put in front of the magnifying glass.

Clearly linked to Futurism's fascination with speed and influenced by Vorticist craving for visual synthesis as well as by Joycean puns (a literary technique that can be seen as the encounter of speed and synthesis), Brown's readies were not only to remain the work of a dreamer or a visionary. If the machine itself was not actually realized by its inventor, the manifesto included a sample story of the new way of writing, heavily featuring the use of so-called “smashum” or condensed words, on the one hand, and of hyphens as a kind of universal typographical sign replacing unnecessary words or reducing overlong ones, on the other hand.

Although quite uneventful in itself and clearly lacking the stylistic firework of Brown's manifesto style (a really great piece of writing, one of the best introductions to the spirit of Modernist writings of that period), this story helps understand how visionary a project 'The Readies' really were and how well they prefigured contemporary forms of electronic writing even in its most daily forms. Brown's relations with the most prominent representatives of Modernist art and culture (Marcel Duchamp, e.e. cummings, Gertrude Stein, for example) give also a rich context to this book, whose publication fills an important gap in our understanding of the articulation of art and technology and the historical forerunners of electronic culture.

Last Updated 7 July, 2010

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