Magic Books - the secret art of book hacking


There it is again, the magic word “hack,” which substitutes for everything including substance. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hack some work before my lunchhack.


Are you sure you can hack it?


Would you prefer books with volvelles being described as ‘Medieval Apps’? (Actually an interesting article, despite the terrible title).

Hack (As I grew up understanding it): A quick-fix, a kludge, a dirty but practical trick.

Hack (As it is now used.): A modification of any kind.

Don’t even get me started on what a “hacker” is.

Hm. To me it always connoted secret knowledge of undocumented features of a system. Now it seems to cover any clever idea, and some less-than-clever.

Books have very few undocumented features, but the RFID hidden in the spine might be one. Now, if you could reprogram that so the system thought the book you just stole had a negative price tag, and the police came and gave you a reward… that’s what I call hacking!

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I think the connection is, a quick’n’dirty fix will often involve repurposing whatever you have on hand, because the ‘correct’ part isn’t readily available. And then ‘lifehacks’ started showing up, which kept the repurposing aspect but dropped the quick’n’dirty aspect.

I hate limiting the word to the digital world. Book is a physical system whose features have been altered in many many ways to unleash unexpected potentialities. Just one example. Trimming its pages like described (in 1584) here:

and secretly using it to perform a magic performance (documented in 1550 by Hieronymus Cardanus here: ) added to the book a new function: the possibility of changing the content of a book with a blow. Today, the art of creating Blow Book has almost disappeared (if you exclude the lovely work by Ricky Jay in 1999).
I couldn’t find any better word for this: “hacking” seems to me the perfect verb, in this context. But sure, you have to accept that hackers were born long before Alan Turing…

Oh no, I agree completely.

I’m afraid I’m old enough to remember things like that being included in textbooks and even being called “computers”. As late as the 1980s that was pretty much the only way to have interactive content.

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