what is a book? 06.12.2006, 7:09 AM
posted by roger sperberg
What is a book? This is a question we will want to answer if we want to enable books to reflect the electronic age and not the ink-on-paper era, just as Gutenberg and his heirs fully exploited that once-new technology back when, well, the ink was still fresh.
I don't think a precise definition is possible, certainly not one that will clearly and unambiguously delimit books, journals, magazines, newspapers, and any other print media, and also add electronicity without claiming blogs, RSS feeds, wikis, mail-lists, and website forums. Each of these are distinct entities, yet might share every salient feature with most of the others at its margins.
I will instead go after What is our notion of a book? What is it I expect you to mean when you use that word instead of, say, "magazine" or "website"? 
So let us begin with this: "A book is something you read." And by that we will not mean something we watch or view. 
While in a sense we have passed the buck to another philosophical discussion — What constitutes reading? — this allows us to now regard children's books as entries into reading, and not annotated drawings. Moreover we have escaped making some arbitrary rules about the proportion of words to drawing or whether the artwork "illustrates" the text and such like.
Now saying a book is something you read means I regard a book of photographs as a book only in how I approach it psychologically based on its physical presentation. Remove the binding literally and figuratively and the book is no more — a slideshow of Ansel Adams photographs is no more a book  than it is a newspaper. The essence of book has expired along with the physical book.
And this starts us down a different path to answering our question of "What is a book?" If I can't define a book the way I might define a hammer or an element in the periodic table or a songbird, I can at least identify characteristics or expectations that we all generally associate with a book. What results is less a definition in the dictionary sense than it is a diagnosis — any object meeting a majority of these symptoms will fall under our designation of "book," even though other objects share some traits and not every trait is met by every instance.
So. What do we know about a book? Let us look at the general knowledge about books, the type that we use daily to distinguish books from other text media, as well as separating it from other media generally and from other artforms.
- A book presumes a commitment of time and involvement from the reader. No one expects to pore over a magazine for a month, to give twelve or fifteen or twenty hours involvement to Newsweek or Architectural Digest, but a worthy book can claim that time or more. In the implied contract between the reader and author, this is something we readers pay and based on which the author can set her sights much higher (or deeper) than with the alternatives.
- A book permits the reader to set his own pace. I don't mean "you read slowly and I'm a fast reader" but that when reader and author fully engage we readers can slow down and reflect on what's been said. We can savor the language, we can re-read the page, even copy the most expressive sentences in our commonplace books, all the while tussling with the words on the page, their meaning, their color, their elegance or abruptness or unexpected appearance, which operate in conjunction with but also separately from the meaning, from the ideas or events they convey.
"Reading maketh a full man ... and writing an exact man," Bacon said, and while the philosophers have mined the territory between what we intend when we put things into words and what we each understand those words to mean, the gap in communication is not complete. In reading and in writing we do find understanding in these glyphs on a page, and it comes entirely from our brains. And we might note how books cannot engage our several senses, except peripherally as we grasp a hefty book or screw up our nose at the cheap glue in a paperback's binding. The vast capability of our visual acuity  is set aside and become a mere doorman to the intellect, which assumes the operative role in our reading, particularly what Bill Hill calls "ludic reading." 
And we cannot hurry or slow down our understanding, but only delight in its delights and accompany its anguished plodding through tortuous texts. And so when I say a book lets us set our own pace — as a movie, symphony, dance or play cannot — I mean the pace at which our intellect maunders or gambols through the material set before it.
And every other part of us is diminished, as an audience sits quietly in the dark before a brightly lit actor on stage. Now is not the moment we notice the hard bottom of our chair or the light fading at day's end or hunger or the voices of others conversing or calling to us; these are subordinate as our minds engage in work or recreation.
When people wonder whether a "book" might not in our future be so multidimensional, with sound, video, interactivity, and mutability to our desires, I say "yes, but." Yes, these can be and should be and will be incorporated. But if "book" no longer means the intellect is permitted to come to the foreground in this way, if text and how it requires this is diminished to insignificance, then we will have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and what we have then will perhaps be entertaining and educational and absorbing, but it will not be a book, whatever label attaches to it.
- A book has an author's voice, what Wayne Booth calls the implied author , with whom we converse or in whose academy we study or at whose feet we sit to hear the tales of the unfamiliar and entertaining. But we have an almost palpable relation with that author that is not so very different than we have with our friends.
This isn't so easy with a movie, say, or a play, a TV show. We are more likely to engage on that level with the actors portraying the characters. In the message, the mood, the impression we take away, can we say confidently where the author leaves off and the director begins? We have an interaction but it is at a remove, it is less personal.
Will the same author's voice be distinct in networked and collaborative books? Or will it be drowned out? Perhaps what we know of installation and performance art will guide us here — as art moved off the walls and away from the close and tangible, the artist did not disappear, did not transmogrify into an actor or impresario. The essence of art survived and with it the artist.
Like that famous dictum about obscenity from Potter Stewart, when he wrote that he might not be able to provide a test for it, "but I know it when I see it," we must be guided by our intuition. Some aspects can change radically if the essence of the book is still recognizable. When we ask, What is a book? we know any answer will be slippery but our certainty is unwavering. In our test, it requires only that we remember the greater part of any book resides not in the physical, but in the invisible world. Then whether we have one author or a collaboration, unchanging text or mutable, physical pages or electronic, static images or dynamic, audio, video, connection to the web or not, whatever the manifestation the future brings us, there should be no confusion. Then as now, each of us will know a book when we see it.
 In part my conclusion of indefinability is based on similar effort undertaken years ago, when I was in graduate school. One professor set the students in his seminar to define what a poem was. As we attributed features to "a poem," it was not hard to find counter examples — I remember a Thomas Wolfe sample brought in to counter the notion that rhythm distinguished poetry from prose. Language, purpose, length, rhythm, meter, rhyme, fixed patterns, brevity of expression — every feature could be countered with a prose sample that met the criteria and poems (which we all agreed were poems) that did not. Although we each had a notion of what constitutes a poem, we couldn't create a definition that encompassed the essence of those notions.
What we settled on was the most rudimentary of differentiation, and yet unassailable — a poem is a text in which the author has decided where one line ends and the next begins.
 For instance, FTrain, a site written by Paul Ford in multiple voices, using multiple personae/bylines, mixing pieces that are not always obviously differentiable as being fiction, biography or memoir, as well as essay and reporting, and not incidentally relying on original musical compositions for full comprehension of the site.
 The audio book by this taxonomy is the platypus of content. Yes, it is a book. And yet we say mammals do not have bills and birds do, despite the contrary example of the platypus. Of course, the matter of illustrations, footnotes, maps, charts and such that we often utilize in a book do not fit so well in the audio book, so it is indeed an odd duck.
 It may come as a surprise that the contrary question of "Is a slideshow of The Castle a book?" is not that readily answered. It may well be. Assuming we are not seeing it formatted in Powerpoint bullets, the distinction between the pages of one of today's e-books and a "slide" in that slideshow seems minuscule, one of projection onto a wall instead of display on a handheld device or computer. But the cohesiveness a binding provides those Ansel Adams photographs is more than matched in a novel by the linearity of the text, the consecutiveness of the sentences, the structure of a story being told. Without a binding, the photographs stand on their own, independent despite their sequence. Not so the text, where each page connects to its predecessor and successor. If we are to rule that a slideshow is not a book — not even a group-read book — it will have to be because it fails the criteria discussed later on.
 I repeat a famous observation noting how immediately in a crowded room we find someone's eyes resting on us, and how small the actual visual information is, a fraction of a fraction of one percent of all that is visible to our eyes. Yet we scarcely recognize that we are the most visual of creatures.
 In his classic book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, another book I encountered first in graduate school.
Chris Armstrong on June 12, 2006 5:07 AM:
There is a substantial literature on definitions of both books and e-books - although I would be the first to acknowledge that it lags behind some of the exciting current experiments by The Institute for the Future of the Book. However, it would be useful to link to it. I have added an abbreviated version of something I have written elsewhere, on my blog, iNG, at http://i-a-l.blogspot.com/2006/06/what-is-book-what-is-e-book.html.
There are other, recent posting on iNG, relating to e-books which may also be of interest.
Roger Sperberg on June 12, 2006 10:21 AM:
Thank you to Chris Armstrong for connecting this discussion to others.
In my own case, I have wondered more about the line that is crossed when we start with something that is recognizably a book in an electronic medium and then keep adding non-book features, such as animation, video, interactivity and so on.
At what point does that cease to be something that we recognize as a book?
The introduction of Sophie also presents significant issues -- if we give an author new tools, will that not change the landscape significantly? And what about the collaborative efforts and the delivery of source content, not just a read-only version but complete with programming and markup?
Mind-expanding to me and totally foreign to any discussion of books-and-ebooks that I've encountered in my seven years of working with e-books. I wanted a definition that worked better than any I've seen used in my circles on the web, even if it may not serve for a dictionary, and one that would not fall apart for me as those boundaries are approached.
-- Roger Sperberg
Lee on June 12, 2006 12:32 PM:
All attempts to define 'book' are likely to be inadequate, and certainly not predictive. As e-materials expand, they will create new art forms, new hybrids.
bowerbird on June 12, 2006 1:59 PM:
what was the question again?
and what was the answer?
and why does it matter?
Roger Sperberg on June 12, 2006 3:56 PM:
What you say is true, I think. But I think there are aspects of the book that we don't want to give up or replace with a hybrid form. If you say,"Here's the information in a book" and "Here's the information in a CD-ROM" I think the experience is going to be very different. I don't require that they be the same. But if, as was projected in the 1990's, the electronic form of the book is strictly that CD-ROM version, then we've lost something. However nice the CD-ROM is, I don't want it to have the label "book" when we in fact lose important facets.
Lee on June 13, 2006 12:13 AM:
Roger, yes I know what you mean, and in fact I still read a great deal in print rather than electronic form, but of course that's what I grew up with, and it may be very different for coming generations. Also, a CD-ROM on a computer screen - though I realise you're only taking it as an example - may be a very 'primitive' experience when compared to new developments in epaper, ereaders, or even more radical possibilities. In other words, do we define 'book' in terms of content, form or some combination of the two, when we don't even know which forms may be available to us in a few years?
For me this is a very interesting discussion precisely because I'm a writer, not a scientist. I feel there are too few writers, except in the SF/spec fiction genres, that grapple deeply with the influence of science and technology on our lives, and yet this influence is so pervasive and defining (is it fear? that old science/liberal arts divide?). Of course there are some exceptions - Richard Powers and Clare Dudman, to name just two. But it is interesting that both of them have a background in science or technology ...
Gary Frost on June 14, 2006 8:05 PM:
definition of a book
***Books transmit conceptual works across time and cultures.
Surprisingly, there is not that much hand ringing over the persistence of electronic resources. It is frequently mentioned that the computer can "store" vastly greater quantities of documentary materials. But for how long? And for how long without modification?
The fourth century codices found in a jar at Nag Hammadi were immediately readable after 16 centuries. In a few decades they have enriched the understanding of pre-cursive sources of New Testament scripture and have enriched the understanding of sectarian philosophy of the period. Just as miraculous, we know that they were unmodified during that long time.
Kairena on September 10, 2006 5:14 PM:
A book is an important object that record many things. Books have enriched our lives and outlive history. They're important because they impart knowledge and keep history, legends, etc alive. Readers play a important role, as to reading; to use it well in life.
mimoza ahmeti on May 4, 2007 11:51 AM:
Book is a speculation we do usually to make a space for ourselfs over the others. Eternal books can be written only by wind on sky paper.
joseph on July 4, 2010 9:24 PM:
book is our lifestyle in everyday and it also an image og God