What exactly is a book?

We’ve recently started selling e-readers in our store. A company called Kobo has created a partnership with the American Bookseller Association, which allows independent bookstores to see e-reader devices in store and e-books online. As always there are varying opinions about this venture that don’t distinguish between staff and customers. Some people feel very strongly that we are a bookstore not a tech shop. S0me see the new technology as evolution, others love to talk about the impending death of the book. Yesterday, the Guardian published a very impassioned article about books and machines. I’m sure a lot of people will feel very similarly about the distinction that Beth makes, but she’s forgotten to include one crucial definition. What exactly is a book?

To define ‘book’, we’ll start with a book. Or what used to be a book, but is now more easily accessed online. The Oxford English Dictionary (def. 3) states that a book is

“A written or printed treatise or series of treatises, occupying several sheets of paper or other substance fastened together so as to compose a material whole. In this wide sense, referring to all ages and countries, a book comprehends a treatise written on any material (skin, parchment, papyrus, paper, cotton, silk, palm leaves, bark, tablets of wood, ivory, slate, metal, etc.), put together in any portable form, e.g. that of a long roll, or of separate leaves, hinged, strung, stitched, or pasted together”.

Books, as we now understand them, are made of folded leaves, that can be opened to any given page. This type of book is called a codex and is a relatively recent phenomenon. Printing books on paper is even more recent than that, not to mention the use of printing itself. The above definition encompasses more than the codex making it suitably vague: “written on any material”, “put together in any portable form”. Is my coffee cup a book? It’s been printed on. It’s portable. You get the point. But my coffee cup hasn’t been ‘put together’. At least not in that sense. I don’t have several coffee cups that are bound to each other, which would be decidedly less portable. E-readers are also ‘any material’ and they are certainly are in ‘portable form’. The defining distinction, however, seems to be ‘put together’. E-readers are made up of different parts, but not different pages, whether paper, papyrus, or screen. We have one screen, with changing text. With changing ‘books’ for that matter.

What exactly are people ‘reading’ on their e-readers, if, as Beth argues, they aren’t  reading ‘books’? And out of further curiosity, what do you think of bookstores selling e-readers?

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One thought on “What exactly is a book?

  1. […] the discussions raises all sorts of questions about definitions. What is a ‘book’? What do we mean by ‘print’ in the digital age? Then the debate expands further. To the […]

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