“But then the question ‘What is a book?’ will never be answered.” (Ficções Filosóficas, 1998, p. 123; translated from the Portuguese) This is how Vilém Flusser engages us to think about books, but without exactly explaining what constitutes this object that supports his “metafiction.” The concept of the book has two opposing connotations: as thing and as non-thing. By claiming that books are “mute, harmless, and obedient things, which, if and when used, become invitations to embark on adventures, but when left alone, are mere wall decorations” (ibid.; translated from the Portuguese), Flusser introduces this dual nature of the book.
By papering the walls with their spines, in a library books create the deceptive impression of a safe haven. However, when a book is manipulated – that is, holding it in the hand, turning it over, and flicking through its pages – paradoxically, it ceases to be manipulated, because it encounters us and we recognize ourselves in it. “[I]t is my ‘other’” (ibid., p. 124; translated from the Portuguese), says Flusser. From this point of view, humans and books are alike because they are conundrums but can be deciphered, yet differ in the sense that “[h]umans are open and must be closed so they can be manipulated; books are closed and must be manipulated so that they can be opened” (ibid., p. 127; translated from the Portuguese).
In Does Writing Have a Future? (2011), the book is also presented as an intermediary between the forest, which produces the material for the paper, and artificial intelligence. We are bookworms and thus books are our nourishment. The actions of grasping, turning, opening the book, and leafing through its pages – as opposed to the possibilities offered by technical images and artificial memories – represent the synthesis of Flusser’s ideas on refusing to replace the book and the disappearance of writing that this would entrain. These actions also make it clear that a new (post-historical) consciousness has emerged, along with the fear that this new consciousness will deprive us of our critical faculty.