This guest post, by Charles Rosenberg, originally appeared on Two Ends of the Pen on 5/4/12.
In April, I attended both the IBPA "Publishing University" in San Francisco and the 2012 Left Coast Crime mystery fan conference in Sacramento. In both places, I heard many people ask, in one way or another, "What will become of the book?" They were talking about the book as print on paper.
That question contains within it both an assumption and a lament. The assumption is that we have, up until now, all shared a common understanding of what is meant by the word "book." The implied lament in the question is the emotional equivalent of asking: What will become of Grandma now that we’ve left her by the side of the road and driven away?"
In this blog post, I want to explore both the rapidly changing meaning of "book" and the feeling of lament about those changes.
What Is a "Book," Exactly?
In the long-ago year of 2006, before the first Kindle was released, we had, I think, a culture-wide understanding of what the English word "book" meant when applied to a physical object. It meant text or pictures on sheets of paper, the sheets bound together at one end, called the spine (usually stitched or glued, but sometimes bound in other ways), with a protective cover made of thicker paper, cardboard or some other material stronger than the sheets of paper within. There were indeed many subcategories of books — hardback books, paperback books, art books, comic books, graphical books, notebooks, workbooks, etc., etc. — but, one way or another, all *books. So if you said to someone in 2005, "I just read a great book," most people wouldn’t have bothered to ask what physical form the book took.
That was then.
Now, with the advent of the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, the iPhone, and numerous other smart phones and tablets, the term "e-book" has arisen, which has begun to upend our more than one thousand year-old understanding of what the word "book" means in physical terms. Think about it: e-books are not made of paper and do not contain pages that are physically bound together with stitches or glue. If they have a cover, its function is not to use thicker/better/stronger digits to protect the text on the inside. Its function is more-or-less to announce the book. Kind of like a butler. Indeed, an e-book is not a physical object at all, although it is contained within one. Yet I don’t think many people would think of a Kindle or an iPad as a book.
As a result, the meaning of the word book has begun to change, to mean text and/or images of a certain length and format rather than a physical object. You can figure this out just by listening to people talk. You will not usually hear someone say: "I just read a great e-book." For an increasing number of people, whether a text was read in digital form or on paper has become a matter of indifference, and yet they still refer to having read a "book." Of course, someone listening to the statement may enquire if the book is available as an e-book. But the question may be generated as much by their "platform" reading preference or on their assumption that the e-book will be less expensive as by any desire to know how the reader accessed the book.
Is This Really Anything New?
From what I’ve read, change is nothing new for books.
Starting around 400 A.D., the bound book became dominant, at least in the West, over the scroll, which has receded into mainly ceremonial use (e.g., the Torah). The bound book had large advantages over the scroll: It was less expensive (you could write on both sides of the page), it was more easily stored and transported (try stacking scrolls), it had what we would today call "random access" (you could reach any page without unrolling), and it was harder to damage (covers really do protect). It was also easier to hide. This was apparently important to early Christian groups, who favored the book over the scroll.