A Book Is A Book Is A Book – Or Is It?

I’m fascinated by this discussion about books and what actually constitutes a book. There is quite a bit going on in these posts – and the discussion has changed focus during the ensuing conversation. Iris Jastram from Pegasus Librarian summarizes the discussion with the following: “Over at See Also, Steve and Dave* are hashing out whether a book is a book if it’s not printed on paper.” Both posts and the accompanying comments are worth reading. But what really caught my eye was a sentence in a comment left on Lawson’s post from Mark Lindner – “A book is not the contents at all; it is a specific form of container.” This is a response to David Lee King’s contribution that “The content in a book – the actual words… that’s the book.”

Hhmm . . . I guess last week I wouldn’t really have thought too much about the concept of a book. The notion means something specific to me – I understand my own conception of a book. But, it is obvious from this discussion that people have different ideas about what constitutes a book. In this discussion, my thoughts about books are much closer to David Lee King’s than to Mark Lindner’s. The word book, I believe, has come to mean much more than just the packaging. I read a book because of its content, not because of its format. I admit to prefering paper books for pleasure reading. However, I’m all for ebooks especially for things like textbooks and for shorter works. Last semester, I purchased one of my textbooks in ebook format, and I would do so again in a heartbeat. I refer to that electronic copy as a book. I think of it as a book. Its format is actually irrelevant to me. I have purchased several shorter length text in electronic format over the past several months. I still call them books – and have been surprised to find that it isn’t all that unfulfillling to read them on a computer screen.

One of the reasons for Lindner’s belief about books has to do with language and our use of it. I understand where he is coming from on this (and I’m not trying to add to his angst). I do agree with his assertion that book is not a content word. Books are books regardless of their content. However, the word book has become symbolic of a bigger reading experience – at least it has to me. The thought of books can evoke feelings – both good and bad. This isn’t unprecedented because words can often mean much more to people than what their definitions suggest they ought to mean. Language and its use is incredibly complex. It is dynamic – and connotation, implication, emphasis all change language dramatically.

I think this is a very complicated topic – and I doubt that everyone will agree with one another. But to me, a book isn’t always just a book. It’s meaning is in the eye of the beholder or rather the holder.

*Steve Lawson from See Also and David Lee King and his eponymously named blog.

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4 Responses to A Book Is A Book Is A Book – Or Is It?

  1. Mark says:

    Jennifer, it would be hard for you to increase my angst. And I do (and did) admit that language changes. In fact, I think this one is changing out from under me as I said at Iris’.

    But I did not say that a book is just a book. In one small pedantic sense that’s true, but useless. Books are far more than the containers that they are and the contents that they carry. And while some people love and appreciate books primarily for the container, most of us love them for the contents and the affordances that the containers provide, while often appreciating aspects of the container itself–a nice binding, quality leather, etc.

    We certainly say that, “I read a book.” But if that is all we say to someone they usually ask a book about what. Book is shorthand in one sense for the content itself. But if we are not forthcoming with what was in the book we will be asked. A book of poetry, a novel, non-fiction, who was the author–anything more meaningful than book as a description of content.

    Not to presume to speak for you–but I imagine that you love reading certain content that may be packaged in book form. Very few people love reading just any books. They may love the experience of reading from a book, the container. But they will still be choosy about what the contents are.

    Fine. Folks can have book for the container if they want. As I said, nothing can be done to stop this change if it is really happening. I only submit that book is a great word that actually describes a certain kind of container for (generally) printed matter. Book as content lacks any descriptive capability whatsoever. If we need a good generic word for the whatever that might be packaged in a book or an e-book or a web page I submit content. Why not? Seems to be the trendy thing lately.

  2. Jennifer says:

    For me, there is so much going on in this debate – on so many different levels. I find it fascinating because it is causing me to rethink notions to which I have given little thought. In a very barebones sense, a book has a certain printed format – on this, I think you are absolutely correct. I think of the “what’s that?” game that I have oftened played with very young friends and relatives. A specific printed item would qualify as the answer. One would never identify a computer file as a book – in this game. However, more colloquially, people do refer to works as books whether they are poems, novels, non-fiction, manuscripts, photocopied pages or electronic files.

    You are right that I do love to read certain content. The experience of reading that content can be very different depending on the container or the affordances offered by that container. However, it isn’t always that different. I have been incredibly surprised at how much the reading experience can be the same for printed books and ebooks. I do read printed books – and I do read ebooks. Sometimes, I prefer one over the other – and sometimes the content I want to read is only available in one of the two formats.

    Ultimately, I don’t really disagree with your thoughts on the matter. However, to me, a book is both its binding and its content. Without content, it isn’t a book – it is a bound vessel with blank pages. Thus, when the content is moved to another format, I still think of it as a book. I guess that is the crux of what this means to me. Maybe some other word would be more appropriate. I’m thinking that you are probably right on target with your comment about coming up with a generic word for the content. However, I’m rather pessimistic about the populace adopting it.

    I wasn’t trying to ascribe the “book is just a book” sentiment to you. That was all me! This whole discussion has made me think about books, their formats, what this all means, what the experience of reading a book, creating content, etc. in a way that is actually making my head heart.

  3. Mark says:

    Eloquently put as ever, Jennifer. :)

    I wasn’t saying you meant that I said it, just wanted to kind of clarify [stopped to answer your email].

    Yes, colloquially people do use book in this broader way. I do too. Perhaps I misconstrued the beginning of the discussion between David and Steve, but for whatever reason (and I doubt I could even reconstruct it at this point)) I took the usage to be one where it mattered in a non-colloquial sense. I think it had to do with the article about Google and Tristam Shandy.

    I hope that I have made it clear in all places that I am not arguing that people do not use the word in this way, or that it can’t be used in this way. We all do it; often. Context is important. And within our discipline I feel the context will more often tip towards the applicability of the non-colloquial usage. As we discussed via email, on the library’s web site it is probably appropriate to use the colloquial sense.

    But for the sake of others I’ll repeat something I said in private to Jennifer: My point is that our language loses an important concept if the colloquial sense takes precedence. And I think this distinction is important to our profession, in particular. We still talk about the manuscript, the codex, etc. as a specific container for “the stories.” How in the future will we discuss the container that is (generally) a bound collection of printed matter (blah blah) if all/most digitized content (“stories”) is also considered a book? How will we discuss the primary form of recorded stories from the last 500 years if we co-opt book to mean stories packaged in whatever form? [Not a direct transcript.] I think this is a critical question.

    By the way, I do read a lot electronically. To Walt’s probable horror, I most often do not print out Cites & Insights. I read it as a pdf. I did not do this initially; couldn’t stand to. But after a couple years in grad school and getting tired of paying to print all the dang pdfs I needed to read I learned to (sometimes) read from them. I usually only print (still frequent) when I want to comment on them/anotate. I rarely want to write on C&I. Not that Walt doesn’t challenge me to think. But in different ways, and most of his source material is directly addressable on the web.

    I have been leaving all this alone, but we could talk about the blank books that one can buy to write or draw your own stuff in. That is a book. It just has no content yet. Now, in some way it is less of a book than one with content. Agreed. We start down the slightly slippery slope of deciding what is a book into the issue (nightmare to some) of concept theory. Is book a prototype concept, or is it a classical concept, or is it a radial concept or …? I’d say that there are things (mostly in the colloquial sense) that are more bookish than others. And a book with words and/or pictures in it is more bookish than the blank book. But on the more technical sense they are equally books. We as librarians just have far more interest in the one over the other. Of course, once something is recorded in the blank book we may be extremely interested in it. Think of the infamous “blue book” essay books.

    All I can say is that I hope I have been reasonably coherent across this discussion, that I am thankful to everyone for making me think, and for participating in this conversation. I also hope that whether folks agree with me or not that they see that I think there is an important difference in these two (allowed) uses of book and that I am not just being pedantic.

  4. […] as I Know It, A Book Is A Book Is A Book – Or Is It? : a couple of comments and an email exchange. Thanks, Jennifer! And I apologize for making your […]

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