Changing the Book

What’s a book anymore?  If you, like me, spend long hours hunched over a computer keyboard (or a typewriter or a pad of paper), struggling to put words down that mean something, that have the serious intent of informing or entertaining, or both, especially words that run up into the high five-figure or low six-figure range, you can be reasonably expected to call it a “book.”  But what if it’s only available electronically?  Is it still a “book?”

I looked “book” up in the dictionary, and it was defined as follows:  a set of written sheets of skin or paper; a set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound into a volume; a long written or printed literary composition; a major division of a treatise or literary work.  There are other aspects of the definition which are not relevant to my discussion here, but the inference seems clear, that a book is something printed.  Something physical.

But if a book, that is, a ‘major literary composition,’ is published electronically, can we still legitimately call it a “book”?  Some may insist on calling it an e-book (or ‘ebook,’ a term I avoid, preferring the hyphenated version), but whatever term you use, the “book” part is still there.  I have always visualized a book as a solid object, with front and back covers, bound by some professional company, written by an “author,” and available through stores that specialize in selling that sort of thing.  (Of course, books are available in all sorts of stores, but the “book” store is the major seller.)  A book has weight, it occupies space, it was made by chopping down trees and by recycling paper and paper goods.  That’s a book.  You can hold it in your hand.  You can open it up and leaf through it and read it.

If you buy a Kindle or Nook or another electronic reader and you purchase a book, for example, Moby Dick, when you read it, the words that will be displayed on the reader’s screen will be the same words written by Melville over a hundred years ago.  Same words, same meanings, same characters, and so forth.  You can visualize in your mind’s eye the same Ahab, the same white whale, and vicariously live the life of a whaler on the Pequod.  You’ll meet Ishmael and Stubbs and Starbuck (I understand that’s where the name came from).  But did you buy a book, in the classical sense of the word, even though the words and meanings came from the classical form?  Melville, of course, had no conception of an electronic reader when he wrote Moby Dick.  The only electrons he knew were in lightning.  And that’s not to say he wouldn’t be in favor of his masterpiece being published in electronic format were he alive today.  But would he call it a book?  Or is it just a series of dark and light areas on a white screen?  I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t.  Hard to tell, though.

Times are changing.  A book by any other name…hmm.

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