What Is the Essence of a Book?

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Over the last couple of months, I have been picking my way through I Read Where I Am, “82 reflections on the future forms of reading.” In the book, some contributors claim that we read less than we used to, while others suggest the opposite—though the definitions of “reading” and “text” differ. Is reading infographics the same as reading Shakespeare? Ellen Lupton points out that the postmodern tenets of deconstructionalists like Jacques Derrida inspired a generation to expose “text as an open web of connections whose meaning lay at the mercy of history and context, reception, and appropriation.”

The short pieces in this anthology relish the potential of digital media for its collaborative and multimedia qualities, or they are reactions to what Mute Publishing’s Simon Worthington calls “extreme format paranoia.” Like most of the contributors, Worthington does not suffer from the ailment he is referring to: the much-discussed death of the book. What many of these writers point out, however, is that the term “book” is subject to interpretation. It is no longer accurately defined as ink printed on pages bound together. So if a collection of words and images can be published and sold in a digital format as a book, is there really anything to worry about?

Today, because of the myriad ways in which content can be organized and delivered to readers (or “users,” if you prefer), it is relatively easy to accept most sides of these arguments. Or to simply dabble in all of the options depending on your circumstances. Such an approach will get you through the day—but it really doesn’t answer, or fully contend with, all of these valid, and relevant, questions.

Back in September, Sharon Helgason Gallagher, the president and publisher of ArtBook and D.A.P., posted an excerpt from the keynote address that she delivered at the 2012 Book Live! Conference. I find myself returning to it regularly, because of its central question:

What shall we want, now, at this juncture in our cultural history, to have called a book? What, looking back from the future at our present as the past, shall we want to have defined as a book in order to create a legacy upon which that future can build?

Implying that we have never really had a unifying definition of a book, Gallagher insists that one is necessary in order to best utilize all that the future holds in store. She flatly rejects the common laments so often heard regarding the coda of the codex. For Gallagher, talking about missing a book’s smell or the act of hunting through disorganized stacks in a funky store is tantamount to admitting that “mustiness and nostalgia” are the book’s greatest achievement.

As an admitted book smeller, I was taken aback the first time I read this; I, like many others, have griped about not being able to smell a PDF. But I also realized that Gallagher is right. Most of our resistance to the growth of the e-book market is emotional, as if e-books are trying to rob us of something. But this has very little to do with content. Personal connections to a physical book should not be questioned, because they can be very real. But are they what we should use to define the book?

From Copenhagenzine.com

Gallagher asks: “What is the ‘bookishness’ of the book that does not survive conversion, translation, adaptation, or reformatting as a digital publication? And what kinds of books even posses this quality?” Since this is someone who works with some of the world’s finest illustrated books, it should come as no surprise that Gallagher’s answer is rooted in artists’ books. But she doesn’t make an argument about the differences between reproducing illustrated content on a page versus a screen. Instead, what Gallagher very eloquently explores is how the act of reading and turning pages as your eyes move along lines of text or jump around the expanse of an image replicates our brains bilateralness and, in fact, reminds us of this quality, makes us aware of it:

To those who liken the printed book to the horse and buggy (and there are many, I’m afraid) I say, no, the book is more like the bicycle. And as enduring. The bicycle: a simple but ingenious design harmoniously suited to the bipedal structure of our human body. The book: a simple but ingenious design harmoniously suited to the bilateral structure of our human brain. When, in the future, we speak of the book, I want us to think of that object which so effortlessly affords the reader a structured self-experience of the bilateralism of the brain.

In I Read Where I Am, Erik Spiekermann declares, “Books are objects, not surfaces . . . [they offer] a physical experience far beyond the mere transfer of facts.” Yes, our fingers can move across screens, “turn pages,” zoom in on images, and click on links. But the experience remains flat. How, then, can those of us with our hands in book production best take up Gallagher’s challenge to identify the essential nature of the book in the name of bettering it, not bemoaning it?


To find out how the magazine industry is grappling with similar issues, check out Scott Dadich’s recent webinar on Best Practices in Digital Magazine Publishing.

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About Buzz PooleBuzz Poole has written about design, books, and culture for numerous outlets, including Lit Hub and Playboy. He is the author of Workingman's Dead, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, and the co-author of Camera Crazy. Keep up with him @buzzpoole.View all posts by Buzz Poole →