What is a "Book"?

Did that title grab your attention? Or is the question just too obvious.

Of course I know what a book is, they are sitting there in various rooms in my house. A partly read one sits on the table next to my laptop, a pen sticking out of it. But to look beyond the physical manifestations of the familiar, in the first of a series of essays, @hughmcguire poses the thoughtful question…

This comes from someone who has spawned successful digital book enterprises in the forms of public domain audio books (LibreVox) and digital open educational books (Pressbooks). Hugh also co-authored in 2012 a… book about the future of books, see “Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto” He suggests that our concept of the book ought to be evolving,not fixed:

For books to remain important, authors, publishers, designers, technology platforms, all of us involved in delivering books and the stuff in them must continue to build on our visions, embracing, in particular, what the web can offer to the enduring concept of the book.

Read more of this first of five installments, and perhaps share some thoughts here as to where the concept of a book might be headed. Perhaps suggest alternative definitions that are meaningful to you. Or share maybe your favorite examples of what a digital book on the web is and pushes at our conventions of those things on a shelf.

Small note here that I can confirm @Downes reads these posts!


Thanks, Stephen, you seem to have eyes in all corners of the web

I’ve been tossing this around in my head since seeing @Downes reference to it on Twitter. My first thought was that length distinguishes a book from other writing like blogposts, articles, pamphlets etc. With a multitude of formats that include much more than text, I still think it is the length of a book that sets it apart. A delicious novel provides hours and hours of curiosity and delight (or not). Provocative works like Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed or hooks’ Teaching to Transgress come at the theme again and again from various perspectives and in different contexts to develop a persuasive case. That’s not to say an article or short monograph can’t be persuasive or explosive, but a book, because of its length has the potential to be more thorough - or more boring. So whether eBook, audiobook, web book with hyperlinked content, or even a print book with QR codes that link videos, it’s still a book if it has enough length. I refuse, however to quantify, “length” or “enough.”

Thanks for jumping in Jim, and agree that while “length” is not quantifiable (making it not possible but perhaps interesting to argue what is not book length) it works as Hugh argued for more than bounded print. That need long ago to sew the pages together suggests some point of realizing it was important to assemble together pages.

Perhaps to add is a book might also be something that is, edited, reviewed, re-written before being distributed, not the stream of conscious stuff we do in blogs. Maybe not, that seems arbitrary.

“That need long ago to sew the pages together” reminds me of an interesting discussion around the Biblical canon. When the technology of sacred writings progressed(?) from a collection of scrolls to a bound byblos, the collection become a lot less fluid (or less open, to tie into this OEG theme). A defined canon starts to take on the appearance of uniformly authoritative works when the pages are sewn together into a book. It is no longer as simple as “these are the scrolls in our basket, and your basket has mostly the same ones,” but it becomes “Who has the right Bible?”
Today, digital online Bibles are making the different collections (and canonically ambiguous works) visible and accessible again to those who might not ever purchase an Orthodox or Coptic Bible. New “book” formats have not opened the official canon(s), but they are certainly opening minds to consider more authors than were available when “book” was only a physical assembly of print pages.
The idea that a book is characterized by editing and rewriting gets really interesting in this context - and produces more fireworks than New Year’s Eve.
“What is a ‘Book?’” is a great conversation starter - can go into so many directions for those of us who like to hear ourselves talk.