What is a book?

Simply defined a book is a “written or printed work of fiction or nonfiction, usually on sheets of paper fastened or bound together within covers.” [1] But is this definition complete? Defining a book by this simple description is like defining a computer as a plastic case containing a hard drive, microprocessor, fan, mother board, a display or monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. A computer is much more than a plastic box, with a fan. A computer is a complex piece of technology that has played a major role in the development of communication and commerce. Is a book anything less?

As a piece of technology the book is quite remarkable. “Any printed book is, as a matter of fact, both the product of one complex set of social and technological processes and also the starting point for another.” [2]. The book is relatively inexpensive to produce, it is durable, it is self sufficient, and it requires no special knowledge or skill, other than the ability to read, to put to optimal use. The book can be produced in various sizes, in various styles; hard cover, soft cover as well as in various languages, including Braille; for those individuals that are visually impaired.

Perhaps defining the book by its physical traits, as a codex is too limiting. Do we run the risk of hampering the future of the book, by defining it by its present state? “One of the most striking facts to the historian of the book, is how closely current discussion of the future of the book in the electronic age resonates with debates among the eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophes and their revolutionary heirs.” [3]

The codex replaced the scroll, and eventually became the modern printed book. Today digital technology is driving the tide of change and challenging the codex as the defining format of the modern book, and questioning the very need for these formally bound and encapsulated volumes called books. The codex allowed for volumes to be housed, shelved and cataloged in an efficient manner in libraries across the world. Digitization of texts allows for entire libraries to be housed, searched and volumes to be read, printed, and copied with out shelves, with out leather bound covers, and with out physical space.

The user today, through advances in search methods and technologies, can access, and create unique searches for information; “knowledge is no longer that which is contained in space, but that which passes through it, like a series of vectors, each having a direction and duration yet without precise location or limit.” [4]

Digital media has changed the essence of the book, removed the physical nature of the cannon, and redefined the very nature of the relationship between reader and author.

In 2007, the Kindle, a digital device for reading digital books was introduced by Amazon. The Kindle allows users to download the latest installments of fiction, or non-fiction directly to the device. Using a technology called “electronic paper” the display screen emulates the softer, smoother, look and feel of the printed page rather than the hard edge and high contrast screen of a computer. It is estimated that the device can hold roughly 200 titles. Is the Kindle the book of the future, or merely the new codex?

In the late 1990’s, the audio book seller audible.com was launched, and in January of 2008 was acquired by Amazon for roughly $300 million dollars. Audible.com allows users to purchase audio versions of fiction and non-fiction books, newspapers, magazines, radio programs and pod cast for use on personal audio listening devices. The very nature of the book has been transformed from a visual form of media to an audio based form. Personal digital audio players, allow for the “reader” to engage in consumption of the product wherever and whenever they see fit. Books can be consumed while driving a car, riding a bike, or sitting in the dark. Do the means of consuming the verse of Kurt Vonnegut change the value of the verse?

Digital media and the Internet has given rise to the creation of an incarnation of the book called; the Wiki. The Wiki is a software-based web page that allows for, and relies upon the collaboration of authors and editors to create what is essentially a living document. Unlike an edition of a book, which once published represents a snap-shot in time of a book, and the surrounding environment it was published in. The Wiki is ever changing, and evolving with the current state of affairs in a particular environment. With the prevalence of broadband Internet connections as it is today, this environment can encompass most of the world.

The Wiki represents a radical shift in how we consume ‘books’ and how we create ‘books’. Once published, excluding government or corporate interference the Wiki is searchable, editable, it can be indexed and hyperlinked, it can be viewed dynamically in multiple languages, consumed in a non-linear fashion, 24 hours a day 365 days a year. The Wiki allows the reader and author to debate with in the pages of the ‘book.’ Could the Wiki have prevented the Crusades, if the technology had been available to Christians of Europe and Muslims of the Byzantine Empire? Could a Wiki bridge the gaps between the religions of the world by empowering the debate of words and not one of bombs?

Technology has thrown off what Dierk Hoffman called the “mnemonic straightjacket,” [5] or the physical limitations of the book as an object constrained by finite size, a finite number of pages, linear consumption and typographical and language limits. The book, like most other technological advancements, is being measured by the technology that follows it. The telegraph was measured up to the telephone, the steam engine to the diesel engine, celluloid film to digital video, and so on. Some technology eliminates the need for other technology; however some technology simply offers another option to the consumer.

Is the future of the book grim? No, it is just uncertain, but isn’t that the case for most technologies, and most of us? This question is being asked of almost all printed mediums. Newspapers and magazine publishers and printers are struggling with similar market and technological forces. Digitization has radically shifted the business models of music producers and publishers, and similar shifts are occurring in the motion picture industry.

As Charles Darwin set forth in his Theory of Natural Selection; only the fittest survive. This applies as much to technology as it does to species. The Stereo 8 or 8 Track Cartridge music system is a perfect example of this. The popularity of the system was driven primarily by the automotive industry despite numerous design flaws. Eventually, the recordable audio cassette hit the market and pushed out the 8 Track. The audio cassette addressed many of the design flaws of the 8 Track, offered a recordable medium, and had a much lower price. The 8 Track quickly went the way of all extinct creatures; to the land fill. Cassettes dominated the music industry as the delivery method of choice, but they have been replaced much like their predecessors, by the CD and the MP3 player.

Will the book meet the same fate as the 8 Track? I think not. The book has an intrinsic value associated with it, a value that is derived not solely from the contents, but also from the physicality of it. The book is a tangible, textural medium, which feels good to the touch. Paper production technology gives the book publisher thousands of paper stocks to choose from. Printing technology has lowered the cost of printing full color graphics and text so even an inexpensive book can have a rich and lush look and feel.

Human beings are designed, opposable thumbs, specifically so we can hold onto things. It is in our nature to covet and object and at its most pure form this is done via the act of touching and holding. We are a species that defines its self not only by its thumbs, but through the concept of ownership of tangible objects and things. We need to touch; we enjoy the sensory experience of feeling the texture of rough paper or smooth leather on a bound volume.

A book is more than the paper it is printed on, the ink that is spread on the page, the glue that binds the spine, and the fabric or hide that makes the cover. The book is a time tested technology for the dissemination of information, for the education of the masses, and the expression of creative thought. The book will survive. We as information consumers will change how we search, access, catalog and store information. We adapt to use the available resources to meet our needs in the most efficient manner. The Internet, the Kindle, the Audio Book and the bound book are all relatives, half-siblings in the information technology family.


[edit] References

1. ↑ book. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/book (accessed: April 03, 2008).
2. ↑ Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book, Print and Knowledge in the Making (The University of Chicago Press 1998), 3.
3. ↑ Geoffrey Nunberg, The Future of the Book (University of California Press, 1996) 23.
4. ↑ Geoffrey Nunberg, The Future of the Book (University of California Press, 1996) 31.
5. ↑ Geoffrey Nunberg, The Future of the Book (University of California Press, 1996) 159.


4 thoughts on “What is a book?

  1. Pingback: What is a book?

  2. Pingback: how to download free mp3 music

  3. Nice post, digitization made huge difference in publishing industry and it becomes best tool to generate the revenue for the print publishers. Many of the publishers are following this trend as online readership rate is increasing rapidly. There are more benefits from digitization of publications when compare to traditional publishing. There are some companies like http://www.pressmart.net helping the print publishers in distribution of the publications through web, blogs, social media, IPods, RSS, mobiles, etc… These kinds of services will definitely more helpful to the publishers.

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