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The Book-ish-ness of Books

There’s been a really interesting and thought-provoking discussion going on lately about “2.0″ topics, spectrums (or rather,” spectra”), print vs. electronic books, and the like. It all started with David Lee King’s Library 2.0 Spectrum, which got so many comments that he wrote a whole post about wanting feedback. Meanwhile Steve Lawson wrote a response (in addition to several comments on David’s posts), Uncontrolled Vocabulary took up the topic, and several other blogs began puzzling out what worked and what didn’t work about the L2 Spectrum.

Well, now the conversation has morphed. Over at See Also, Steve and Dave are hashing out whether a book is a book if it’s not printed on paper. I must say, I didn’t know what to think about that question. Deep down, I’ve always reserved a special place for printed and bound books that is completely separate from manuscripts and eBooks. In my head, these wonderful and time-honored creations have always been Books with a capital B. … And then there were these derivative things called eBooks — sort of like postcards of the Mona Lisa. You know exactly what they are, but you just have to make do with the presentation.

Then David comes along and questions this assumption. He feels that books are books, no matter the format. And that seems like a very reasonable conclusion. You can digitize everything but the paper (and the smell), so what’s the problem? I’d hate to get caught in the trap of putting printed books on a pedestal just because I like the way they feel. And there’s nothing worse than finding yourself falling into the trap of “because that’s the way they’ve always been.” In fact, I’m not sure that I haven’t fallen into that trap, even now.

But something in the comments to Steve’s post struck a chord and I felt compelled to add my own comment to the string, even though I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to say. Steve had made the point that calling the paper and binding of a book a “container” might be too simplifying. He said:

I think my problem with the word “container” is similar to Dorothea’s problem with the word “just” in the post I linked to above. It makes it all sound very simple, very easy, when it isn’t. I can pour my ginger ale from an aluminum can container into a glass tumbler container, and it is still ginger ale. “Pour” Tristram Shandy from a paper book container to a Google scan container, and you no longer have Shandy, you have something else. (cite)

Then, as I typed, I puzzled out what I was thinking. I’m still not sure I’m “right”… but here’s what I wrote (edited only slightly to compensate for sloppy writing):

I think you’re right that the point is that it’s not simple. The point is not so much the words in a row. The point is not so much the placement of pictures, type face, or white space (which is also important). The point is that “containers” are not entirely benign. If they were entirely benign, people wouldn’t pour ginger ale from the can to the glass. There’s something about a glass that’s more comfortable to drink from. The edge feels different on the lips, the spray tickles your nose… the experience isn’t the same. And yet, the ginger ale is still ginger ale.

Ok, so the container matters in this case, but doesn’t change the substance. But what about the case of a Van Gogh painting? Seeing digital reproductions of his work is nothing like seeing the real thing. The colors aren’t as vibrant. The textures of the brushwork are simply shadows rather than spaces. In this case, the “container” changes the work absolutely and fundamentally.

So does the “container” change the substance of a book in the same way that it changes a painting? I’d say, “It depends.”

Ludlum might be a “book” no matter it’s container. Shandy, maybe, not so much. Complex texts are not generally read in as linear fashion as they are written. The words march forward, the same as ever, but my eyes jump back to the top of the facing page, the previous paragraph, the next sentence, almost without breaking the flow of my reading. Complex texts require this type of reading-while-reading as you make sense of them.

Some day, technology might be able to simulate the act of putting a finger on a page in order to mark a point you’re trying to interpret by reading forward. Some day eBook readers might allow the kind of non-linear reading that’s necessary for sense-making. And some day there might be a fully automatic process by which complex texts, these books that have never been anything but Books, can be converted to digital formats. Just like some day we may have digitally reproduced paintings where the experience of the painting isn’t fundamentally changed. (cite)

[Updated to add: I've been thinking more about things that get translated into different formats. Things like music, for instance. Music is one thing that's drastically different live vs. recorded, and yet that's entirely accepted and doesn't phase anyone. So now my question is this: are books more like music or more like paintings? My gut reaction is still that they're more like paintings because they're not a linear experience, while music is always listened to in a metaphorically linear way.]

[Updated again to point to Mark's excellent comment on Steve's post. This reminder helps me a lot! Thanks Mark.]

16 thoughts on “The Book-ish-ness of Books

  1. Language is slippery and definition is ephemeral.

    Maybe I am just on the “losing end” of all this, but people’s use of language is really getting me down lately.

    I left a comment on Steve’s 2nd post….

  2. Yes, I think I’m following you on this; “containers are not entirely benign.”

    I don’t know that I made this clear enough in my original post: I am sure that we will hit a day when e-books are preferable for most books for most readers, and are indeed better for many uses and many readers than are paper books. But I think the process is going to end up being longer and more arduous that it would appear at first glance, especially when it comes to more specialized material. (Hmm, I might feel another blog post coming on…)

  3. Yes, Steve, you did make that “it’ll be work” point. I just didn’t highlight that part of your post, and I probably should have. Thanks for reminding me.

  4. I definitely agree with your notion that containers are not entirely benign. I also agree with Mark that “book” doesn’t mean what David seems to think it means.

    However, I was struck by your statement that music is one thing that’s drastically different live vs. recorded, and yet that’s entirely accepted and doesn’t phase anyone. It certainly “phases” me, in the sense that I make sure to distinguish between live vs. recorded when talking about a performance (I prefer live and purchase live recordings when possible). However, I’ve been a musician for over 30 years – so perhaps that’s why.

    Hmmm…. I wonder if that illustrates something about this book vs. e-book discussion?

  5. Music. Hmmm. I’m going to try but not sure how metaphorical I will be.

    Also, I am a music lover–live or recorded–but I am no musician, sadly.

    Music is a fairly specific word, but mainly it is a highly generic word. What is often considered music by the common person is fairly culturally specific. Thanks to things like better education, globalization, world music, etc. many of us are much more inclusive of what we would allow into our definitions of music.

    Music is vastly different live vs. recorded. But think about a language. It is vastly different whether spoken or “recorded,” that is, printed or written. In fact, it is different if spoken in person or recorded. It is different if recorded in print or in one’s own handwriting.

    If it wasn’t 6 in the AM I might find some differences myself … but, I submit, what is the difference between music being live or recorded versus a (specific use of a) language that is live or recorded?

    Analogously to what I wrote a few minutes ago over at Life as I Know It
    http://scruffynerf.wordpress.com/2007/08/16/a-book-is-a-book-is-a-book-or-is-it/
    about book used as a content word, if you tell someone that you listened to some music, they will ask you what kind of music, or music by whom–be it artist or composer. In that sense, music serves more as a container or form word.

    Now, I think this analogy breaks down some because I do think that music can be a content word, albeit a very, very generic one. I think (know) that we use book in the same way. It is meaningful in the sense that we understand the shorthand for what the person is saying, but we are usually left with some unanswered questions if that is all we know.

    In fact, unless someone can kindly help me pull these apart, I am going to accept my analogy.

    Words are slippery and we use them in various ways. Some of these ways are less meaningful than others.

    I do think that music is a form word. Sure, it tells me something about the possible kinds of content, just as book does. But by itself it tells me nothing about how to discern what that might be. And that range (for music) is vast, possibly even more vast than what we put in books.

    Live vs. recorded music is a very big difference. But so is reading your favorite author vs. hearing them do a live reading of their material.

  6. Just a side note, really… there is a slight difference between, say a novel.

    Music – meant to be heard

    Art – meant to be seen

    Books (novels, etc) – meant to be read

    Poetry – that one’s slightly different, since it’s cool in both written and performance settings….

    Just some thoughts…

  7. Geekchic, You’re absolutely right. I simplified the music point just a bit. Mea culpa. I still think there’s something to that comparison (book vs ebook, live vs recorded music), but I’m having trouble coming to terms with it at the moment.

    I don’t think I quite agree that “music” is a “container word” any more than “book” is, though, Mark. Authors, publishers, and genres make a difference to books just as composers, performers, studios, and genres do to music. But I love the idea of bringing in spoken vs written language. That’s a layer I hadn’t thought about before. I’ll have to think on it more before I have specific thoughts, though.

    And Dave. I’m not quite sure I understand your comments. Music is meant to be heard, yes… and you can hear live and recorded music, yes. Art is meant to be seen, okay… but as I pointed out, you see different things when you look at original vs digital Van Gogh. And I would argue that reading happens differently online and off. Sure, the words all mean the same things in the two formats, but maybe I’m the only one whose eyes skip around the page as I read? That’s possible. I’ve never read using somebody else’s eyes and brain. So I guess what I’m saying is, I really want to understand your comment because I think I missed the point, and I think the point may be important.

    Oh, and “Yay for comments!!!!” This is the kind of thing that makes blogging worth it for me. :)

  8. Iris: I wasn’t irritated by your music comment – just struck by it, so please don’t apologize. My husband (who is not a musician but owns hundreds of CDs) completely understood what you said and finds my distinctions to be overly fine. I was voicing my reaction to see if others would be similarly bemused. ;) Mark’s analogies make the most sense to me.

  9. Iris, I know you didn’t mean this to support my argument (and I am willing to have my mind changed, esp. regarding music) but I am co-opting it because it does so quite well:

    “Authors, publishers, and genres make a difference to books just as composers, performers, studios, and genres do to music.”

    Exactly! I agree. They make a difference to the music (loosely speaking) or the content of the music, if you will (got to be a better word than content), just as those people and things to for books. Yes, in both cases these things can affect the actual physical carrier, but more likely and far more often they affect the content.

    I am not sure what David is getting at with his 1st line. But it is the content of books that are read.

    Again, I do agree that in a loose sense we can (and do) speak of the content of books as books. We do say “I read a book.” But this is generally shorthand for what we really intend to convey. Sometimes it is all we mean to convey.

    You may say that you listened to some lovely music and that may be all that needs to be said in that context. What kind of music or by whom or even recorded vs. live may be unnecessary to the context or the message you intend to convey.

    I am not against these uses of these words, when appropriate. I use them this way, too. My concern is when we are (or should be, IMO) talking in a more detailed way, e.g. as professionals, we need to be more explicit. Relying on the less meaningful sense of a word when we should mean something more specific is a problem.

  10. Not exactly sure, but David’s comment makes a tad more sense to me now if I put it with those over on Steve’s blog.

    By the way, once David stated that he is talking about “story,” I readily agreed that “story is story” and “reading is reading (ala Iris).

    Thank all for the conversation! :)

  11. Yes, a story is a story, and reading is reading. Yay for consensus!

    I’m finding these discussions incredibly interesting. In our crazy, roundabout way, we’ve gone from “increasing comfort with technology is increasingly good” to “wait, books are bad?” to “what is a book and by what process can that format change” to “yes, reading is reading.” What fun. I think we’ve argued ourselves down to a first principle of some sort, but it has nothing to do with where we started. :)

  12. Heh. I just thought back to my grad school days where whole seminar sessions were devoted to debating the death of the author, storiness, who defined story, and whether any single story exists or could exist over time.

    But for the sake of this discussion, I just won’t go there. Ah, the good old days, when my days were stuffed full of such useful discussions. ;)

  13. I love this kind of philosophical discussion, which means I should probably get on over to Steve’s blog. I do believe in the value, sustainability, future, pick your word, of ebooks. For certain genres of books.

    Yes, reading is reading and story is story. However, there is a deep sensual pleasure to having a physical book in hand that adds to the reading experience. Much in the same vein a great reader will add or a bad reader will subtract from the audiobook experience. The “containers” for ebooks don’t have the same added sensual experiences avialable (scent/touch/sound). There are other factors which make ebooks popular with some people. Those who read erotic romance/erotica like the anonymity of the purchase process. Those who travel a great deal, like that they only have to carry one device instead of 10-12 books. Those who like to explore experimental/cutting edge stories may find the only way to get that kind of story would be from an electronic small press publisher as the risk is not as great for them as it would be for a NY publisher if a print small press doesn’t already specialize in the story type. As someone who reads ebooks and has friends who are published in the electronic format, I have grown to appreciate the advantages and the disadvantages of the “container”.

    Anyway, those are my random thoughts on the topic :)

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