4406 entries. 94 themes. Last updated December 26, 2016.

1. From Gutenberg’s Movable Type to the Digital Book, and Other Studies in the History of Media

1.C. Defining "The Book"

Because of the many changes occuring in the form and function of the book, which complicate our conception, we first need to clarify its meaning. As a life-long afficionado of the finely designed and produced physical book, my first inclination remains to think of the book as a physical object which, depending upon quality, may be appreciated perhaps romantically, as "a sculpture for reading." But the qualities of most physical books probably do not live up to that romantic notion, and the book is often defined more abstractly both in terms of text, and as a medium for conveying a text. According to the Oxford Companion to the Book, Suarez and Woudhuyen, eds., published in 2010 (p. 543) the word book may be used both to designate a text and the vehicle in which the text is transmitted: the word "has long been used interchangeably and variously to signify any of the many kinds of text that have been circulated in written or printed forms and the material objects through which those words and images are transmitted. The ancestor of the modern word 'book' is used in both senses in Anglo-Saxon documents. . . ." In 1998, near the dawn of electronic books, Frederick G. Kilgour, the creator of OCLC, defined the book as "a storehouse of human knowledge intended for dissemination in the form of an artifact that is portable--or at least transportable--that contains arrangements of signs that convey information. . . . The electronic-book system, when fully developed, will need to be accessible by a device that will serve as a comfortable vade mecum for an individual user." 1.C.1 Kilgour, The Evolution of the Book (1998) 3. By requiring the book to be at minimum "transportable," Kilgour seems to have excluded such writings as stone inscriptions, though stone inscriptions were certainly a durable means of communication. Furthermore, transportable is relative; even a heavy stone inscription would be transportable by the right equipment. By focusing on the book as "artifact" Kilgour acknowledged that electronic books would be future developments, referring to the then-current inconvenience of reading an electronic text on a desktop computer screen. As many of us recall, in the early years of personal computing, before the development of high-speed wireless Internet connections and truly user-friendly hand-held reading devices, the question always raised against electronic books was "Who would want to curl up with a cumbersome computer or laptop when you could curl up with a "real", i.e.'physical' book?" Or, this question would be turned into a joke by asking, "Who would want to curl up with a computer when you could curl up with a book, or at least with someone who had read a book?"

Stripping away non-essentials, I believe that we may characterize a book as a container for text and related information, designed for storage, distribution and communication. Of course, the communication usually occurs by the process of reading, and reading may be the process of viewing images as well as text, or images themselves may be considered text, and sometimes what might appear to be text could be very small drawings.

"Fusion," a 1988 piece by the artist Timothy Ely. Source: The Center for Book Arts.
In a discussion of Timothy Ely's mystical unique manuscript books in issue 9.1 of Fine Books & Collections magazine (Winter 2011, p. 9) Nicholas Basbanes quotes Ely relative to the difficulty that a graduate student was having in an attempt to decipher Ely's "language": "He finally summoned up the courage to ask me if I would tell him what this stuff meant. I told him that for the most part he was to look at these things as if they are tiny drawings, and he just found that to be absolutely unacceptable. It was really frustrating for him, because he just wanted me to give him the code, and I said, there isn't one."

For all intents and purposes a book should be identifiable or labelled; however, an incomplete book or fragment, which may have lost its title page or other bibliographical identifiers, may still be characterized as a book. Prior to the Internet and the electronic book we might have assumed that the book was defined by its most common physical form, which for about 1500 years has been the codex. Or, if we took a wider historical approach, we would probably have acknowledged that throughout their history books have existed in a variety of physical forms, and we would have described the book in terms of its physical attributes.

The front side of the Cyrus Cylinder, dated circa 537 BCE, upon which is written a declaration of the King Cyrus II in Babylonian cuneiform.
We could have said that it took the form of a clay or wax tablet, a clay cylinder, perhaps a stone inscription, a papyrus or parchment roll, or a codex. If a codex, it had a certain number of leaves usually made of papyrus, parchment or paper, containing information in the form of words or images or diagrams or a combination of those, either written or printed or both, and that it might or might not have a binding. Depending upon the physical format of our book, we could attribute certain characteristics to the form. A codex might have a title page, pagination or an index.

However, if we wish our definition to include non-physical forms of the book, such as audio books, and digital books, whether issued for an ebook reader, as a downloadable PDF, on CD-ROM, on a DVD, or what-have-you, different kinds of physical attributes apply. In January 2010 many devices could serve as ebook readers: those specially designed for the purpose, so-called "smart phones," tablet computers, and conventional desktop or laptop computers.

The recto side of a papyrus containing lines from Homer's Illiad, found at Hawara, Egypt and dated to circa 150 CE.
If published as a physical codex, this essay would have fixed pagination. In its current display form, which, incidentally I hope to improve in the fairly near future with redesign and the addition of images, it occupies only one long web page, more like a roll than a codex, but holding far more information than a typical roll would have held in the ancient world, as most of those contained a text equivalent to about one book of Homer's Iliad or Odyssey. Whatever physical form my essay is taking on your computer screen depends both on the formating built into my electronic text and the nature of the screen from which you are reading. As a feature of your web browser, you have the flexibility to increase or reduce the point size of the typeface. If this was an ebook, and you were reading it on an ebook reader, you might also have the option of changing the typeface. Pagination of my text might change as you adjust the point size or change to a typeface with a different character count, or software might be able to retain the"fixed" pagination for consistent reference even with the changes.

Does my electronic text exist as book without a storage and display medium such as a computer or an ebook reader? If I had written out my text in longhand or on a typewriter it would have to be stored, communicated, and read in a traditional physical medium of some form, such as a collection of unbound sheets of paper or a physical codex. Or before writing, or in ancient or medieval culture, a text could be passed down orally from person to person through memorization. If written on some physical medium, however, it could be presented as a physical book. Unlike a physical book, the text which you are currently reading is a digital file which I could not write or read without hardware such as a computer and software to enable its creation and programming. Since a device is required for communication between the human and the file, the digital file only serves its purpose for communication if it is running in the reading or reading/writing device. However, because a digital file of this type can neither be created nor used without such a reading device does that mean that a reading/writing device is an integral part of my text? This is an interesting question. If, for example, there was only one specific reading device required to read a specific text we might argue that the device in that instance is an integral part of the text. However, because digital files can be downloaded over the web to a variety of non-unique reading devices providing they are running the right software, I would argue that the digital text exists independently of the reader, but that the text does not become a "book" until it is in a usable form in some kind of reader.

Reflecting on common qualities of books stripped away from their physical attributes, I thought that one quality common to all books, physical or digital, is a static text at the time of completion.1.C.2 I am grateful to my son Max for critiquing my definition of the book and stimulating me to improve my definition through spirited discussions. Including this, however, confuses the textual aspects of the book with its form and function. Another problem with including a concept of a fixed or static text, or even any form of text within our definition of the book, is that so many books exist in variant editions or states showing different stages of the development of their text. Textual variants, of course, occur in many books, from papyri to medieval manuscripts to printed books of all kinds, and these variants can be collected and studied whether the text is perceived as complete or incomplete or fragmentary. This returns to the larger question of whether or not the text is independent of the form and function of the book. If the book is a container should the container be defined without its content? Do we necessarily include the concept of text within our definition of the book, or is it more the other way around: do we define a text by its various editions or states in books? Certainly students of texts take the media on which the texts are recorded into account, and the field of book history encompasses fields which study texts as well as the history of the form and function of the book. Often the nature of a text affects the form, such as size or design, if not necessarily the function of a book. If images may be considered text could a video be considered a text? Until relatively recently we thought of books in codex form presenting texts that were either manuscript or printed. Audio books were mainly audio renditions of printed texts. Is there such a thing as a video book? Perhaps we do not have definite answers to these questions.

As I wrote this database online over the past several years, I did not think of it as a book, until recently. Nor do I intend it to be viewed as a book in the way that I understand the concept of "book." The scope of material that I am attempting to cover in the database seems too wide and too multi-dimensional for any book in the traditional sense. An interactive database with thousands of entries and even more thousands of hyperlinks would seem to stretch the traditional definition of the book. The database hardly ever presents arguments, though occasionally I slip in some. It lacks a cohesive point of view. Actually the database is not intended to present a point of view except through the process of selection of what is included, and how those entries are indexed, and that is a continuously evolving process. The goal of the database is to present information that you can follow or use from your point of view, whatever that is. Furthermore, the thousands of links to entries within the database itself, or to outside sources, tend to diffuse focus rather than to concentrate it, unless one views the links as equivalent to footnotes--details supportive or extraneous that you read if you have the time or inclination. My purposes in adding so many links are both to document the sources of my information like footnotes, and to amplify what I have written by providing links to further information. To me, the most appealing aspects of creating this database are its interactive aspects, its fluid, multi-dimensional nature with its links to the greater world of information, and the opportunity organize in different ways the widest range of material on the history of information as my curiosity expands with the ever-increasing accessibility of historical and other information on the web.

These narrative and analysis essays may more appropriately be called a book though I am not writing them in the way that someone would normally write a book: map out its scope, write an outline, organize it into chapters, publish it when finished. If viewed from the perspective of traditional book, my process of writing these essays would more reasonably be considered a series of published drafts, or works in progress--not a finished text. However, under the working, and also unfinished definition of book formulated here I am aware that this unfinished work may be called a book--a published book, as it is online-- even though I continue to rewrite, revise, and expand it regularly. Having these essays online helps to explain the unique project that is From Cave Paintings to the Internet. Whether or not these essays, and their associated database, are perceived as a book, or books, since their inception in 2005 these studies of media-- from ancient to newest-- have been created entirely as digital files on the Internet as I work at my computer, drawing from information in both digital and physical form, surrounded by thousands of physical books, many of which are beautiful objects produced over five centuries. I would not want to create these studies in any other way.

In an April 2011 blog post under The Technium heading from kk.org,"What Books Will Become" Kevin Kelly wrote of "the web's great attraction: miscellaneous pieces loosely joined." He seemed to suggest that an essential element of "the book" was its separateness from the loose conglomeration of material on the Internet rather than its connection through the many cross-references to the conglomeration that websites typically provide by links:

" . . .bookish material tends to dissolve into a undifferentiated tangle of words. Without containment, a reader's attention tends to flow outward, wandering from the central narrative or argument. The velocity of shifting focus creates a centrifugal force which spins readers away from the pages of the book."

To counter the distractions of the web, Kelly states that "a separate reading device seems to help," such as an ereader or even a cell phone. Taking advantage of future reading devices and interactivity with readers, some of which he outlines, Kelly suggests that as the ebook evolves it will take a form very different from websites, reflective of the rapidly evolving definition of "the book" and "the ebook"--definitions that seem to be growing more complex along with the increasing complexity of the associated technologies.

Perhaps the most complex publication on the Internet, and the ultimate intellectual expression of its social networking aspect, the Wikipedia, with its 3.5 million articles in English, and 17 million in about 250 other languages as of December 2010, is presumably the longest, or among the longest Internet publications, and it might be the longest book, or figurative set of books, ever created, with the most different currently published versions, and the largest number of authors.1.C.3 I raise the question of the size of the Wikipedia relative to other websites since one of the dramatic features of the Internet has been the amount of information that some sites contain, and their remarkable accessibility. For example, collections of government documents, such as all the U.S. patent records, accumulated since 1790, may be enormous, and as I write this I am unaware of how one could make size comparisons between websites, though one would assume that quantification of any amount of digital information should be possible. The speed at which it has been written would have been unimaginable before the Internet; the Wikipedia began on January 15, 2001! But should we call it a book? The enormous length of the Wikipedia does not prevent it from being called a book by the present definition, which in theory could encompass a work of any length. It may certainly be described as a container for information that is designed for distribution over the Internet and communication by reading, and even, if by some stroke of our imagination, the Wikipedia could be issued in an enormous set of physical codices, following Kilgour's definition, those individual codices would be transportable, and the entire set, of who knows how many volumes could be tranported in a series of semi-trailers or railroad cars. However, if we require a static or finished text for a work to be called a book, the Wikipedia, which is constantly being revised, improved and expanded by an online group of over 100,000 volunteers, cannot be called a book. You might ask whether selections from the Wikipedia copied off the website on a given date could be published as a book. Because everything in the Wikipedia is made available free of copyright in theory this would be possible, and it has probably been done more than once, though I have not found the specific bibliographical references. Paradoxically, if we were thinking only of physical codices in defining the concept of the book, a work the size of the Wikipedia would probably have been unimaginable, and, of course, if it had to be written in the traditional methods, by hand or by typewriter, on paper, by an imaginary team of typists passing paper back and forth, it could never have reached its current form within a century or even a millenium, let alone a decade.

If length does not factor into our definition, brief documents may also be considered digital books or printed books, just as we sometimes count printed pamphlets and short codices or ancient papyri as books, even if some of these books have survived in fragmentary form. This means that groups of blog entries, or even SMS text messages, may be considered books; I admit that including text messages with all their abbreviations and less than literate language seems to stretch the definition of the book about as far as it can go! Would we more accurately characterize them as graffiti? In December 2010 Blog2Print! offered a service by which a blog could be turned into a professionally printed 20-page soft cover "Blog Book" for $14.95.

Michel de Montaigne.
Because we tend to view the past through modern metaphors, also in December 2010, the sixteenth century creator of the essay form, Michel de Montaigne, was characterized as the "father of all bloggers." A book also needs basic means of identification including author, title, date, and publisher, though not all of these details are always provided. If it is being marketed today in either printed or digital form a book needs a unique product identification code called an ISBN (International Standard Book Number). If the ebook is being marketed in different electronic formats each different version is supposed to have a different ISBN. Still, even without these basic means of identification, a scholar or detective might be able to identify a book from its text whether the book is physical or digital.

But what if a book does not have any text or images? Should we call a "blank book" a book? With respect to physical books, blank notebooks are sold as books every day in a wide varieties of formats and bindings. A blank codex is still a functioning codex, and a blank papyrus roll remains a papyrus roll. Both of those are books partly, I believe, because they have the potential to carry text and illustrations even though they are blank. Does that mean that an ebook reader without a digital file is essentially a "blank book"? Perhaps. Summarizing our definition then, the concept of book has moved far beyond its traditional physical limitations, and may be thought of as a container for text and related information designed for distribution and communication, chiefly by means of reading, but also perhaps by listening and viewing. At the present time a book may exist in two basic forms: physical and digital. If a text exists in a physical form like a codex it contains an integral display mechanism in the form of pages on which information may be written or printed. If a text exists in the form of a digital file or files, which require a separate reading device or display mechanism, that device, separate from the text, is an essential, though sometimes interchangeable part of the digital book, as without a reading device the text cannot be read by humans. Whether at some future date humans, or humanoids, will be able to read digital files by direct input into their brain using a brain-computer interface, without an external reading device, remains, at least for the time being, a topic for science fiction. Research on a brain-computer interface (BCI), sometimes also called a direct neural interface or brain-machine interface, through which digital files could be directly input to the human brain, processed in the human brain, and also output digitally, began in the 1970s. It was featured in such science fiction or cyberpunk classics as William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) and the film The Matrix (1999).

The theatrical poster for the film Blade Runner.
Relative to humanoids the issue was dramatized in the film Blade Runner (1982) in which the humanoid (replicant) received a personality, including memories such as books read, by data input. If and when people can read digital files without an external reading device, the digital file or files alone, or what traditionally was called text, without a separate display mechanism, may be viewed as books.

(This section was last revised on June 13, 2011.)

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