Tuesday, February 09, 2010

What we talk about when we talk about books

(This is also posted at Bookfuturism)

I'm taking it for granted that I'm preaching to the choir here when I say that books are different things. Books are novels, nonfiction, collections of photos, hardcover, paperbacks, inexpensive newsprint, rare vellum, scrolls, pop-up books, random pages bound together, text running left to right, right to left, vertically, no text at all, usually but not always made of paper. I think one of the things that we value so much about books is their very malleability. Hell, digitize it, put a "e" in front of its name and read it on a Kindle and it's still a book.

That being said, I think that it's time that we really start broadening our minds and ask ourselves some hard questions about what we're talking about when we talk about books, and as we move into the future what exactly it is that books do and what exactly we want them to do.

Books, for example, are not synonymous with any particular form of technology. The book, for example, is much older than those things we're used to seeing in bookstores and libraries, which are codices. The infamously destroyed Library of Alexandria? Nothing but scrolls. The end of the codex, if it ever happens, is not the end of the book. The single best example of this is the encyclopedia, which (in printed form) is dead, dead, dead, and exactly no one misses it. Whether Encarta or Wikipedia, there's a better way to collect large volumes of general reference information than unwieldy, expensive, and immediately obsolete printed volumes. On the other hand, e-readers may be getting better and better, but printed, bound volumes seem to still be the most accessible and cost-effective format for long-form fictional and nonfiction narrative, and so while novels may not carry the same high-culture impact that they did 60 years ago, they still sell (reasonably) well.

Books do not compete with newspapers, the internet, movies, or video games. These all do different things (or, perhaps more interestingly, they do the same things in different ways). Saving the book does not mean saving the novel any more than saving poetry meant saving the oral epic. Rather than bemoaning the death of the printed word, let's ask ourselves what print does that memorization and performance didn't do, and remind ourselves that memorization and performance still exist in the theatre, on slam stages, streetcorner lyrical battles, and lecture halls. The end of print (if print disappears) is not the end of the book.

Books are also not synonymous with authorship. The mystique of the author is the younger sibling (or grandchild) of the book. Homer has to be invented because when the Iliad was written no one cared who had written it. Discerning the future of the book is not a business plan for tomorrow's novelists (as much as I might like it to be), although since remuneration for writers will affect what books are written and not written, it will always be a subject of interest.

All books are written, although they are not written in the same way. All books are interactive, although they are not interactive in the same ways. Let's talk about what makes a book a book (and what makes it sometimes a newspaper, or a magazine, a film, or a video game), and what it is that we want the book to be.

What is it exactly that we're talking about when we talk about books?