A Book is a Book

The other day at work I had an impassioned conversation with a customer over what characterizes a book – that is to say, a solid, tangible, paperbound object – versus an e-book, that increasingly popular digital commodity that is poised to take over the world of literature, if it has not already done so.

One of the things I pointed out about e-books is that they’re not actually ‘books’ at all. Even a completed novel or biography isn’t technically a ‘book’ until it has been bound and placed between two covers. Before a collection of human thoughts is transformed into what we call a ‘book’, it is merely a story, a manuscript, a document, or a text. I sold my first novel to a publisher in March of this year, and I will continue to refer to it as ‘my novel’ until multiple copies of it have been printed and bound, whereupon I will finally be able to refer to it as ‘my book’.

I am not opposed to my novel existing as an e-book per se, but seeing my words on the screen of an e-reader would feel no different than seeing them on my own computer screen, and my instinct to edit might kick back in. I would not be able to escape the feeling that my manuscript had reverted to some earlier and less-formed version of itself. It would be nothing more than an electronic file on a computer device, just as it was the day I wrote down the first sentence on a blank Word document and clicked ‘Save As’.

My book, however, with its flip-able pages and author photo, its carefully chosen cover design and back-cover synopsis, its tangibility, papery scent and, dare I say it, its personality – now that is a thing unto itself. The thing I am most proud of in my apartment is my book shelf, which I show off every chance I get. I would simply not experience the same joy in showing someone the list of titles stored in my e-reader.

I do not mean to argue the advantages of paperbound books over their electronic counterparts. The contents of both are, for the most part, the same, and the differences lie mainly in medium. I am simply pointing out a semantic fact. E-books are not ‘books’ but digitized compositions. They exist only in theory, in an electronic realm, and do not cause the hearts of bibliophiles everywhere to throb with unbridled booklust. If you’re anything like me, your love of books extends beyond the story between the covers, and spills over – sometimes literally, in the form of coffee or spaghetti sauce – onto the object itself.

To emphasize my point, even Wikipedia, which revolutionized the accessibility of digital information and has all but eliminated the use of paperbound encyclopaedias, knows enough to set the record straight. Call up the article for ‘Book’ on that website and the very first sentence reads: “A book is a book.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

10 responses to “A Book is a Book”

  1. For the record, the first line in the entry for ‘book’ on Wikipedia no longer says, “A book is a book.” It has been changed to: “A book is a set or collection of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side.”

    I also enjoyed the following tidbit: “A lover of books is usually referred to as a bibliophile, a philologist, or, more informally, a bookworm.” Now all we need is an informal term for a lover of e-books.

  2. This exchange gave me an idea: what about publishing an e-book and then continue to edit the story? Readers would be able to go back to the e-book a year later and find new developments, changes in characters, new dialogues.

    Does that already exist?

  3. “E-books are not ‘books’ but digitized compositions. They exist only in theory, in an electronic realm, and do not cause the hearts of bibliophiles everywhere to throb with unbridled booklust.”

    Speak for yourself! I have about 50 boxes of books in storage (after having to toss another 35+ boxes after a flood), and I LOVE my Kindle and collection of e-books. In fact, a number of my favorite books just this past year were published only as E-books, and if I limited myself to only physical books I never would have read them or enjoyed them.

    I see no difference between an e-book or physical book. I love them both and don’t see why everyone insists on having to choose between them.

  4. I think trying to restrict the definition of “book” so precisely is a bit pedantic, to be honest. Many of us are comfortable referring to our word-processed drafts as “manuscripts,” even though the term dates back to an earlier distinction between handwritten and printed work. Reading practices change, and the language to describe those practices evolves with it. We’re certainly already comfortable with referring to articles (like this one?) simply as “articles” and not “e-articles,” because the consistency of the content (or of the *rhetorical* form) seems more important than the shift in physical medium. And “book” was already such a broad category that I don’t find expanding it to encompass e-publishing problematic.

  5. I really like Ethan’s idea about a book being defined by degree of completion. One of the things I think all writers want and need to feel is a sense of reward or validation for all their hard work on a given literary project, and often the physical book is the symbol of that reward.

  6. Cool post! It’s by no means a comprehensive definition, but couldn’t a book be defined in part by degree of completion? For instance, if you have a manuscript that needs editing or otherwise remains unfinished, you might say that you’re working on a book, but that you don’t have one yet. Likewise, the feeling you describe, Stacey, of seeing your work on an e-reader and thinking of it as still open to change, sounds sort of in line with this worry. The cover, author photo, etc. of the physical book signify that the ideas within have enough permanence that they are a book.

    Of course, there can be multiple editions of a book, but I think the idea still holds up. We might not think that a book needs to stay unchanged in perpetuity throughout the universe, but that at least internally, within an instance of its publishing, it should stay the same.

    Not sure what this says for the e-reader question. I’m inclined to say that, although changes could certainly be made more easily, the public presentation of a book on an e-reader could prevent the same sense of permanence.

    Just a thought.

  7. I appreciate your comments, Jessica, though I would argue that the weird thing people carry around in their heads is more like an idea/story/narrative, a would-be book if you will, and not an actual book. If what you say is true, then 99.9 percent of the world’s population could legitimately be called ‘authors’.

  8. Great post, Stacey. I wonder though about musicians. Is a symphony a symphony before anyone hears it, or not? An album? No one can touch these things, but they exist in people’s brains. I feel that way about books. A book may be a book–but it’s also a weird thing people carry around in their heads before they write them down, and after they read them. Isn’t it just a particular kind of taste to feel booklust towards well-stocked shelves, not necessarily a reflection of what makes a real book? I for one get drooly over book apps as well as paper. I appreciate the distinctions you raise, but I guess I still wonder what sorts of names for books will help them and their cult endure in their new shapes. If it’s helpful to readers to think of e-books as books, then I’m all for it.