Thursday, July 11, 2013

What's a Book?

The late great Maurice Sendak, irascible and sharp as ever in his last interviews, had this to say of e-books: "I hate them. It's like making believe there's another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of book! A book is a book is a book." It's a hard quote to improve on, but it's also worth considering, really: what is a book? And is an e-book really a book at all?

I'd say that, to be a book, whether material or virtual, there are a few basic qualifications -- I can think of six off the top of my head:

• A book must contain readable text.
• It must be portable -- the ability to take a book anywhere is one of its key strengths.
• The text must be persistent -- that is, it should still be there if you go away and come back again later.
• You should be able to do what you want with it: store it, loan it, give it away, bequeath it, and (yes) destroy it if you have a mind to.
• It should be able to be annotated, written in, drawn in, dog-eared or place-marked. Call it "interactivity" if you like.
• It shouldn't vanish unexpectedly. And, if undisturbed, it should last for years.

So is a typical e-book a book by these measures? In most cases, no. It meets the first two criteria, yes -- but is it persistent? Some e-books leant by libraries expire after a certain date and can no longer be read; some e-books can only be read in certain places (as with Barnes & Noble's 'share-in-store' café feature) -- that's not real persistence. The fourth qualification, though, is the biggest stumbling block: almost no commercial e-book format allows lending or giving of any kind. If, in a lifetime, you amass a library of physical books on which you spend tens of thousands of dollars, you can give it to a friend, leave it to your kids, or donate it to a library. If you did the same with e-books, you'd have nothing -- your death would be the death of every e-book you'd bought.

Annotation? Some platforms allow this, and there's even one model in which one can see other peoples' annotations -- wow, just like a book! There are "signed" e-books never touched by an author's hand. But if the lifespan of an e-book is uncertain, the duration of these user-added annotations is even more questionable.

And disappearing? famously deleted copies of Orwell's Animal Farm from its users' Kindles, kindly crediting them 99 cents, after the company was informed by the Orwell estate that the book was still in copyright -- talk about Orwellian. And there's nothing to say Amazon or some other vendor couldn't do it again. What's more, if you decided not to be an Amazon customer, or not to replace a broken Kindle, or if Kindle were to be replaced by some hardware or software that wasn't backwards-compatible with older e-book formats, then your books would have vanished for you.

Lastly, what would one make of some archaeologist of the far future, coming upon a buried e-library? If Amazon didn't exist in the future, there'd be no way to recover these battered e-readers and tablets -- their data was mostly stored on cloud that once floated in the sky of a lost civilization. And like clouds, there'd be no getting them back.

So I suggest a label, or some sort of certification: Only e-books and readers that met the six criteria above would be certified as genuine "books" -- everything else would have to use some other word: text-sacks, wordblobs, readoids, or libri-fizzles. Anything but "books."

(illustration from wikimedia commons)


  1. Bravo. It's still too early in the life of ebooks as a format for most people to notice or care, but as decades pass the issues of longevity, and especially bequeathability, will loom ever larger as more and more people discover they've spent huge sums purchasing libraries they can't pass on or that simply evaporate unnoticed in the backwash of compatibility issues, unilaterally voided or amended licensing and usage agreements following unforeseen corporate mergers or buyouts, and hardware failure. In fifty years time it could well be that, for serious readers at least, the paper book will enjoy a renaissance.

    On the other hand, it's important to recognize that not all readers *are* "serious readers". Many, probably most, readers spend most of their time reading stuff they don't aspire ever to read or think about again, and don't care if they can't keep their copy as part of some permanent personal library. For them, the price they pay for the book is like a rental fee -- with elastic terms, certainly, but essentially regarded as a fee for a one-time use. So it may be that differences in reading habits and expectations will lead to a permanent bifurcation of reading technologies between these different reading communities, or more likely, individuals choosing either technology depending on their attitude to a particular book.

  2. Hi Jonathan -- thanks for your comment! And yes, you are right, for the not-so-serious reader -- or even for the serious ones, when they are headed out on a trip and would prefer a kindle loaded up with a virtual stack of murder mysteries or other fiction that's generally only going to be read once, or once in a long while -- the "e-book" (pardon me, readoid) can be handy. It certainly has been the case that e-books have pretty much stamped out the "paperback stage" for new releases, precisely because they fill the need for a cheap, temporary copy of a book.

    There's often a role for such a system in a time when readership is changing or expanding in ways that go beyond the traditional model -- Mudie's Library, for instance, which worked a bit like Netflix, enabled many Victorian readers to enjoy books they couldn't otherwise afford. And interestingly, the pricing pressure placed on publishers raised very similar issues.

    All of which is just underlines the point that, if publishers today are going to ask for $14.99 for something, it ought to actually be a book, not a will-o-the-wisp!

  3. This was an interesting read! It reminds me of some of the discussions we had had in class last semester. I still personally prefer the paper version in my hand. There just is something more unique and homey about about it.

    I think one of the only benefits is that these handheld versions allow you to have access to several different genres for less money.