What Makes a Book a Book? (A Working, Material-Operational Definition)

photo: "Abandoned books" by nathansnider, via Flickr Let’s say that you’ve got two digital texts. One is a book; one is a website. You access both through a computer screen. Both are accessed via the internet. Both have visual elements that move. Both incorporate sound. Both have still images. Both have alphabetic text. Neither one can be changed; read-only. Maybe this is starting to feel like a trick question. Like I’m stacking the deck. Begging the answer that they’re essentially the same form. And then, out of nowhere, I’ll reveal a simple little concept that demonstrates, definitely, that they are clearly not the same. Not going to happen. Sorry.

I will argue, though, that the book is a book and the Web page a Web page. Not the same. How’s that? To tell you the truth, I’m not totally sure. I’m still working that out. Does it come down to “books” having certain characteristics that make them books? Maybe.

Is a book a book because it has pages and a cover and a table of contents? Not necessarily. Weekly or monthly magazines have the same, but there’s not a lot of debate about whether or not magazines are books. Okay, maybe an issue of Granta or McSweeney’s can blur the lines. Sure. But in issue of a magazine is different. An issue is just that. An issue. It’s a verb. To be issued. And then another iteration issued. The overall arch of the magazine’s existence is what takes precedence over the issue. An issue of a magazine doesn’t do the same work as a book.

I’ll spare you the same sort of move when looking at the physical aspects of a book: paper, ink, index, page numbers. I’ll also skip any discussion about how a book circulates: sitting on a library shelf; produced in printings, not issues; purchased as a single, cohesive unit of knowledge.

I think it would be more useful to think about books in an alternative way: as the material instantiation of certain types of cultural projects. And there are a pair of corollaries that spinoff from this tenet. The first is that a book is the material product of discrete negotiated interests. The second is that a book is purported and/or perceived to do a certain type of cultural work.

So what are the key words here? Material. Instantiation. Types. Cultural. Project. Negotiated. Purported. Perceived. Work.

Maybe I can map out my own little project here (a blog-project, not a book). Maybe a list. Bullets. I love bullets.

  • Material. A book’s gotta be made outta something. Even digital books need a physical medium.
  • Instantiation. This alludes to the idea of a Platonic text. Correct text. What the author really intended. The content of the book, as opposed to form.
  • Types. There are all sorts of cultural projects to be done. Building bridges. Selling cars. Fixing a leaky faucet. Books only pursue certain types of projects.
  • Cultural. Books are social. Books are historical. Books operate in a dynamic environment where there are plenty of things at stake like ideas, and beauty, and knowledge, and propaganda, and…
  • Project. Each book has its own kairos. An impulse. Goals. Maybe an argument.
  • Negotiated. Author. Authors. Editors. Publishers. Consumers. Libraries. Teachers. Readers. Students. Distributors. And more.
  • Purported. Every book claims to do something.
  • Perceived. Some people see that book is actually doing something. Some see that it isn’t.
  • Work. Books change the world. Maybe one book changes a tiny part of one world. Maybe the scope is sometimes bigger. Change. Hopefully for the better.

Man, oh man. Each of these components of my working definition could be its own entry here on the blog. Each of them is at least a task on my list of entries-to-write. And I’ve got something to say about each of them. I likely won’t handle it as a system, but instead try to relate the books/articles/chapters I’m reading for the dissertation back to each one of these components. I guess that’s just a reaction to my own skepticism about my habits for not contextualizing my claims specifically enough here on the blog. What I’m trying to say is… don’t hold your breath. These ideas are central to the background of my project. I’ll work through them eventually.

(photo: “Abandoned books,” nathansnider, via Flickr, CC license)

This article has 5 Comments

  1. So the question “what is a book?” isn’t really an answerable question. It’s perhaps not even an interesting question, because the answer will be — as it is with so many things — “definitions of the book are overdetermined.”

    So perhaps then a slightly more interesting question is: “why are these components of my working definition of book-ness in tension with one another?” One could also ask “whose interests are represented in these various definitional components-in-tension?” but I think the answers, even extended ones, would be be fairly self-evident. I guess the angle I’d be most curious about would be something like, “In [context x], *how* do people argue about the definition of the book and reveal their competing self-interests in pushing their various definitional components-in-tension, and what does that process — that *how* — tell us about [context x]?”

  2. BTW — if you aren’t already familiar with it (did we talk about this at the Brown?), Anthony Grafton’s “A History of the Footnote” is an absolutely magisterial bit of book history, and gets at some of the sorts of contestations of knowledge you’re looking at.

  3. Ryan, I have worked all day and I came home to Hawkins puking. I am tired and don’t have much to say in response (certainly nothing intelligent) to your last few posts other than:

    I am glad I read them and I am glad that you are out there figuring this stuff out for the rest of the world.

  4. Ryan, I have worked all day and I came home to Hawkins puking. I am tired and don’t have much to say in response (certainly nothing intelligent) to your last few posts other than:

    I am glad I read them and I am glad that you are out there figuring this stuff out for the rest of the world.

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