The Nature of Books
June 08, 2014
There is no shortage of material written on the nature of the book. The accelerating growth in eBooks seems to have excited even more discussion just as I remember the appearance of the Web did some twenty years ago. A couple of chance occurrences have brought me back to this subject. And I think that with this revisiting, I have stumbled onto a surprisingly clear take on the topic and perhaps even a useful one.
Recently I was reminded of a specific event that very neatly distills the nature of the book for us. I picks up on a small production similar to my youngest daughter's "timeline" book in the above photo. This particular case features a student of my wife's, a young girl who would come to our house a couple of times a week to work on her basic reading skills. One of this girl's challenges was a lack of confidence and this had led the school to make the referral to my wife. With a healthy dose of one-on-one instruction, and a little old-school phonics, this young lady made great progress. As the Christmas holiday was approaching, my wife had an idea: why not have this student write her own book. So that became the new project and it didn't take long before others became involved including my son, whose skills as a Graphic Designer brought this project to a respectable level of "production quality".
What happened next distills the nature of the book and it does it so well that we don't even to draw on any other stories. On the designated completion date for this little book, this young girl entered the foyer where her parents were standing to present them with the book she had written and illustrated. Her expression said it all. Gone was her lack of confidence. No longer struggling with reading, she had created something that was a book in every sense of the word.
So how exactly does this small book story exemplify the true nature of the book. For one, it is important that this was not just something this young lady did in isolation. Others were involved. She had conceived, composed and illustrated the content, a coherent treatment of a subject and she had pulled it together with a publisher and an editor, with that being my wife and her tutor. There was a production investment that was also invoked to bring the book to a level of polish and binding that gave her content a distinctive permanence and substance. And there was a public to which the book was delivered, the beaming parents.
This is what a book is. It is a social phenomenon. It is not a collection of words and images in a specific type of binding. It is an interaction between a number of people playing different roles with the end result that the content that was originally created makes it to its intended audience and durably plays its intended function. Different roles in this transaction might become automated, as in the case of self-publishing, but the roles are always there in some form. How fully the roles are played is what we unconsciously use to judge whether something we encounter merits the respect we traditionally accord to a book.
Another example of a book of somewhat humble origins is this quirky small imprint called "Some Myths About The Police". It is basically a pamphlet produced by some young people on Denman Island in British Columbia and distributed through some of the local hang-outs. What is interesting about this example is the extent to which anonymity was maintained. The people involved, the authors, illustrators, and printers, did not want to be known.
At the opposite end of the book spectrum, quite literally, is this magnificent edition of Shakespeare's Pericles - published through the painstaking work of Barbarian Press. This book is as close to a work of art as you are going to find these days and not just because it delivers a careful edition of the Bard's work. This book comes together through the scholarly, artistic and even physical labour of a team of specialists and even a few good-spirited volunteers.
And the photo that openned this post also included a few other examples. One is a piece of marketing from Mercedes Benz. Normally all unsolicited mail is shredded as standard procedure at my house. But this book was not a marketing piece per se - it was a quite interesting history of the company founded by Karl Benz in the 19th century. It was simply too nicely produced, and its content was too genuine, for it to be treated like just any other corporate communication. Another is a classic book - the combined works of Lord Byron published in Philadelphia in 1850 and still actively used.
Interestingly, my dropleaf desk holds all of these books and they are in some ways my most valued books because they illustrate how the nature of the book can be seen in such different manifestations. An eBook can fit into this definition of a book and I could have tossed my Kindle reader into this photo. But also interestingly, of the different accomplishments that these examples illustrate, eBooks cannot be said to achieve any of them. They can achieve different things but they have not achieved these specific things as yet - whether it is personal connections, or anonymity, or superlative artistic expression, or production quality, or persistence.
- The eBook Revolution: Blowing Books to Bits
- Intelligent Content and the ePublishing Revolution
- The Fate of Books
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