Sunday, January 29, 2012

What is a book?

I have been so immersed in a book culture that even the notion of defining the book at first struck me as a ridiculous question when I first started thinking about it a few years ago. A book is a book. It’s printed. It exists between two covers. It’s static. Yet we are all becoming involved in the redefinition of the book. 

The question of what the book is transforms into a question of what we need it to be, and then, what can a book be? I think some of the ‘games’ that my children ‘read/play’ should be marketed to parents as the new form of the book, because that’s really what they have become – game series like Assassin’s Creed and The Elder Scrolls. They await the new releases just as I await the latest books from my favorite authors. They immerse themselves in the plot, unlock the narrative and experience the story through film, text, music and by creating the action with their playing. 

Literature – fiction and non-fiction -  is how we tell each other stories and create a shared experience and understanding. As our reading moves online, and we explore the text plus world to enhance our reading experience, it is going to become richer. But as Glenn’s son said, the experience of moving through text and following new information can take you places that you didn’t expect to reach. One thing about the 19th century book, you could always return to your earlier experience and relive it;Chapter three stayed put and you could go back to it. I find myself longing for a way to put an electronic lock on my online experiences so I can readily re-access them. Like the Hotel project that Coover describes, it can be disconcerting to find that your favorite character has left the digital world, never to be found again. It reminds me of a Zen haiku bit of internet humor that circulated a while back – positing that Microsoft Error messages should be replaced with haiku:

With searching comes loss
And the presence of absence:
"My Novel" not found.

So the answer to what a book is and what it will become also depends on where and what its purpose is – is it an electronic textbook, an e-art book (and wow, does that definition change from the old coffee table book notion of an artbook), a novel for mass consumption, or a game-like experience? There’s still a mass market, and I wonder if readers will become exhausted by the new opportunities. 

I went down a Peter Robinson rabbit hole while reading Jared Jenisch. Robinson writes in WHERE WE ARE WITH ELECTRONIC SCHOLARLY EDITIONS, AND WHERE WE WANT TO BE and would just end with a quote from him on scholary texts and how hypertext transforms us from readers into editors:

“Scholarly editing has for centuries distinguished between editors and readers: we, the editors, are gifted with special access to the materials, and we are licensed by the academy to make editions which you, the readers, accept. This [hyperlinked] approach attacks this distinction. All readers may become editors too, and all editors are readers before they are editors. This does not propose that all readers should become editors all the time: most of us will be content to accept, most of the time, what Gabler tells us about Ulysses, or Werner tells us about Dickinson. But any good reader must sometimes be an editor. Gaps may also appear in other barriers, long present within the academy: that between documentary and critical editing, that between textual scholarship and literary scholarship. We are all engaged in the business of understanding: distributed editions fashioned collaboratively may become the ground of our mutual enterprise.”


  1. Very interesting and reflective post Judith. I'm thinking of GISELLE BEIGUELMAN's The Book after the Book (
    I'm also thinking about that idea that 19th C books were "static" in that sense that we could go back to a chapter (as you explain). But, what about other books and stories like Hopscotch (1963) by Julio Cortázar, Invisible Cities (1972) by Italo Calvino, Life: A User's Manual (1978) by Georges Perec and If on a winter's night a traveler (1979) by Italo Calvino. These are just some stories, especially Hopscotch, where the author deliberately tries to prevent the reader from retracing her/his steps. Similarly with Calvino and Perec, they wove narratives that encouraged us, as readers, to lose our *spots*. These books too, today, might be said to facilitate a game-like experience.

    I also love your Zen haiku rather than the usual Microsoft error message. We should be able to download an app that changes all computer errors (and 404s) to that!

  2. I'm not familiar with the books you reference, so read a few reviews on Hopscotch. Its different pathways and voices sound foreign film-like to me; also more like the way we experience life - learning things years later about people that alter what we thought of them at the time, things that disorient us because they alter what we took for truth - auntie so and so gave up a child for adoption, so and so is really her mother and not her sister, Newt Gingrich had an affair - okay, some things are less surprising than others.

    Maybe hypertext is giving us back some traditions we've lost - the notion of fixed text between editions and copyright versions of things that cannot be altered is a relatively new phenomenon. I think it was Dickens who would drive his publishers mad because he would sell one version of his story to one and another version to someone else. And the ability to create our own texts harkens back to the former practice of commonplace books, where people transcribed passages of books they found thought provoking, creating their own 'book' over time. Robert Darnton argues that we are overemphasizing the shift from text printed on paper to digital text; here's a link to an interview he did with Publisher's Weekly after the release of his book, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. He is by no means dystopian about the future of the book and embraces the e-book as it could be, but has some thoughtful perspectives on books of the past and cautions us not to lose sight of the journey of the book.