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Sunday, 16 January 2011

What is a book?


When you sell a man a book you don't just sell him 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue. You sell him a whole new life. - Christopher Morley

What is a book?

No, seriously. Think about it for a moment. Is a book a container for words or the words contained therein? My first novel exists as a series of 0’s and 1’s stored on my computer’s hard drive, as a printed copy in my bookcase, as a professionally bound edition but more importantly it exists in my head. If all the computers died and some alien virus tore through the planet and destroyed every scrap of paper that exists on the planet would my book cease to exist?

At the end of Fahrenheit 451 Montag the conflicted fireman gets to meet living books:

"I want you to meet Jonathan Swift, the author of that evil political book, Gulliver's Travels! And this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and-this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein, and this one here at my elbow is Mr. Albert Schweitzer, a very kind philosopher indeed. Here we all are, Montag. Aristophanes and Mahatma Gandhi and Gautama Buddha and Confucius and Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln, if you please. We are also Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John."

Everyone laughed quietly.

"It can't be," said Montag.

"It is," replied Granger, smiling. "We're book-burners, too. We read the books and burnt them, afraid they'd be found. Micro-filming didn't pay off; we were always travelling, we didn't want to bury the film and come back later. Always the chance of discovery. Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it. We are all bits and pieces of history and literature and international law, Byron, Tom Paine, Machiavelli, or Christ, it's here. And the hour is late. And the war's begun. And we are out here, and the city is there, all wrapped up in its own coat of a thousand colours. What do you think, Montag?"

"I think I was blind trying to do things my way, planting books in firemen's houses and sending in alarms."

Kim Peek Living books already exist and I’m not talking about someone with an eidetic memory like Kim Peek, the guy who inspired the film Rain Man. There is an organisation called the Human Library made up of living books:

A Living Book is a person, that has chosen to be a public representative of a certain group. An example of how people can be, if only minds are open long enough to find out, who and what they really are.

We talk about books speaking to us. Well this organisation takes that literally. They even have bestsellers.

What is a book?

At the end of The Day After Tomorrow books are also fuel but for a different reason. The survivors are freezing to death in a library. So they set fire to the books. One book survives though. A male employee clings to a rare copy of the Gutenberg Bible – the first printed book in history – and won’t give it up. Another survivor questions his motives by asking if he expects God to save him. He replies that he doesn’t believe in God. Rather, he is only saving this early edition of the Bible because its printing represents the beginning of ‘The Age of Reason.’ It’s not just a book. The words inside it aren’t important. But the book is.

That’s fiction, of course, but the fact is that people have actually risked the flames themselves to save a book:

Not long after the United States invaded Iraq, a memorable photograph appeared: an Iraqi man hurrying away from the Library of Baghdad through a smoky, chaotic street, his arms filled, overfilled, burdened down, with books. The books - some of them large and heavy, like art books or old records of some kind - may have been rare treasures, or they may have been merely whatever he could gather up in the confusion of the burning building. He may have been a librarian, or he may have been only a reader. I know he was not a looter, because his face showed not only distress and fear, but passionate grief.

One of the books in question was the Sarajevo Haggadah and this is not the first time it has escaped the flames:

A priest spared it from the book-burnings of the Inquisition in Venice in 1609 by writing in it "revisto per mi" – "I have approved this" – and signing his name. – Ursula K Le Guin, ‘The shelf-life of shadows’, The Guardian, 19th January 2008

rocketebook There’s a lot of talk about e-books at the moment. They wouldn’t have to worry about fire. Assuming they were backed up somewhere. The revolution has been promised/threatened for decades, the end of the printed page, yada yada, but it hasn’t happened yet and it hasn’t happened now. The technology is available but it was available ten years ago when my wife first bought me my Rocket eBook. The Rocket eBook when first introduced in 1998 retailed for $499. It weighs 22 ounces, can hold about 4000 pages and with a memory expansion up to 160,000 pages! Its battery life is around 40 hours without the backlight on. The Wikipedia article comparing e-book readers doesn’t even have it on its list any more. I liked it. It had cylindrical batteries which provided a nice ‘handle’ to hold the thing by and I’ve no idea how good the current devices are but it was perfectly readable even back then. You could add notes, underlining and bookmarks and change the font size from 10- to 28-point. It could read HTML, Word documents, and ASCII text files as well as its own custom format; no support for PDF unfortunately. But it didn’t set the world on fire.

Can I just mention here that I’ve never seen a film in 3D? The nearest I’ve gotten to it was a DVD my daughter bought me of Family Guy: Blue Harvest (its Star Wars recreation); it has a set of the old paper glasses but it just didn’t look right and I gave up. 3D is back in vogue again. And not just in multiplexes. 3D-TV is here. So they say. They say a lot of stuff. They said the book was dead and LPs. The cynics believe that it’s all a marketing ploy. I have mixed feelings about marketers. The worst kind of marketer will try to sell you something you don’t need for money you don’t have. At the moment they’re telling me that I need high definition. I am not joking, I can’t tell the difference between ordinary TV and HDTV. I have a HD-ready TV. It will take pictures up to a resolution of 1366 x 768. It’s not a huge TV. It’s 42" but that’s about twice the size of our old TV. All I can think of when I watch it is how huge it is. The first thing I watched on it was the latest Star Trek film and I was completely satisfied with the experience . . . and it wasn’t even hi def! I don’t need hi def.

Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered on September 28, 1987. At that time I had a black and white portable. I actually still have it even though it’s useless. When someone got me a video of the programme we borrowed a colour portable and watched it on that. In fact we watched it twice in a row. It had been years since I’d owned a colour TV. Just the colour was amazing. You see I remember the switch from black and white to colour in the late sixties. People said they would sit and watch nothing but the new colour test card and they were not joking. Everything was suddenly vibrant.

Now though you have to have hi def. You simply have to.

HDTV is a gimmick. 3DTV is a gimmick. E-book readers are a gimmick.

Gimmick (noun):

  • A device employed to cheat, deceive, or trick, especially a mechanism for the secret and dishonest control of gambling apparatus.
  • An innovative or unusual mechanical contrivance; a gadget.
  • An innovative stratagem or scheme employed especially to promote a project: an advertising gimmick.
  • A significant feature that is obscured, misrepresented, or not readily evident; a catch.

Some gimmicks catch on. Some do not. Gimmicks are not automatically bad but marketers have made us wary of anything strangers tell us we have to have or we will be unhappy.

Joneses_poster I watched a film over a while back called The Joneses. The Joneses are the Joneses that we’re all trying to keep up with, the people who are the first ones to have the must-have products: the cars, the video games, the watches, the dresses, the things that say so much about who we are. I do not need a 42" TV. I bought one because that’s what’s available, I can afford it, TV is something we watch a lot of and it was on offer (I shopped around for the best deal). Part of me thinks it looks ridiculous. What the hell am I doing with a think that size in my living room? I’ll get used to it though, like I got used to my last TV which was my first widescreen TV. I remember being so pleased with that purchase and now it looks such a sorry wee thing sitting in my office waiting to see what fate has in store for it.

I don’t actually have a lot of books. It’s something I feel guilty about. I’m a writer so I should have thousands of them. But I don’t. I have a few hundred. Maybe Carrie and I have a thousand between us, just. The problem for me was that I was never a voracious reader. My daughter is, as was her mother who could read a book day, but I think I’ve always had too much going on and reading was something that needed to be fitted in. When Carrie and I bought this flat we decided to move a bit further out to give us time to read on the bus. Before that we were barely on the bus for ten minutes and you can’t do any quality reading when you’re watching for your stop to come up. So we moved and started reading again. I even used my Rocket eBook a few times – I distinctly remember reading Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London on it – but not many. I felt a little self-conscious sitting there with this odd contraption not that anyone gave me a second glance at that time in the morning.

Things are changing. Things already have changed and will continue to change. A film used to be an experience. Then it became a thing in a box. You used to have to arrange your life around watching a film. I remember my dad taking me to see The Ten Commandments in the cinema and that was an experience; that would probably have been circa 1967. Now films have become ephemeral again. People watch them online, they stream them.

The same goes for music and even literature, if you go back far enough; you went to performances, you didn’t expect the performers to come to you or to be able to retain the performances in anything other than your memory. And then people learned how to cram all the experience into boxes and the possession of those boxes became the be all and end all for some people. They forgot what was in the boxes, some of them, and the boxes became symbols, nothing more, like the bottles of wine people spend small fortunes on never intending to drink.

I don’t have many first editions in my collection. Not ones that are worth anything apart from a copy of Dream of Fair to Middling Women which my wife bought me as a pressie. I have a few comics that are first editions which are worth a bob or two but there’s only one I haven’t read and that’s because it came already sealed with ‘bubblegum cards’ – or at least what I think of as bubblegum cards, trading cards, inside – and if I open it then it goes down in value. What I have read, however, is that the quality of the bag is not 250-gauge, high clarity, low density polyethylene and is actually damaging the comic. What do I do? Keep it as sold or protect my investment?

What is a book?

The_Exorcist_1971 I always thought a book was something to be read, in whole or in part. That it has the potential to be read isn’t really enough. Why buy a book and not read it? I’m just glad that generations to come will not have that to worry about because all they’ll be buying will be the code to display pixels on a screen. There will be no rare books any more. Or then again there might just be. If writers don’t distribute their books widely then you could see kids swapping code in the playgrounds of the future which I think they’ll find a lot easier than copies of The Exorcist which was the one I remember.

A book can be in more than one place at a time. A book can be more than one thing at a time.

What is a book? A series of little printed signs – essentially only that. It is for the reader to supply himself the forms and colours and sentiments to which these signs correspond. It will depend on him whether the book be dull or brilliant, hot with passion or cold as ice. Or, if you prefer to put it otherwise, each word in a book is a magic finger that sets a fibre of our brain vibrating like a harp-string, and so evokes a note from the sounding- board of our soul. No matter how skilful, how inspired, the artist's hand; the sound it wakes depends on the quality of the strings within ourselves. – Anatole France

On August 5th 2010, Google estimated that there were approximately 129,864,880 unique books in the world.


Gwilym Williams said...

Hi Jim, I was thinking of getting one of these electronic book gizmos for Xmas and lo and behold there they were in a local store - 3 different kinds - you could try them out and so I did it was a bit like this:

n by songs or rhy
ulas of sorcery: t
elight in a high d

And not only that I couldn't read whole lines in but these things weren't easy to read under the shop's neon lights. I was forever changing the angle. Obviously I didn't buy one. Now I'm off to read a Wm Carlos Williams interview in a coffee stained and battered old book that someone must have loved once upon a time.

Mairi said...

I've read that we wouldn't have Mandelstam's poetry if his wife hadn't memorised it and preserved it for us. So I suppose she was a book, at least for awhile. There are lots of people at the opposite end of the spectrum though. I went into a second hand book shop and exchange in a small town in Nova Scotia once, and all the genre fiction had lists of people''s initials on the flyleafs. The owner explained that once someone read a book they initialed it so they'd know they had. Made me wonder.

I suppose DVDs have taken over that sort of mindless timekilling role, although, like you, my earliest movie memory - not to be confused with my earliest movie - was a big event. My dad was taking my brother and me to visit his mother in Lochmaben and we had to stay overnight in London. We went to see The Battle of Waterloo in a red velvet papradise. I still remember those horses dying.

I'm clearing out some of my books though. Those old paperbacks with the yellow pages tiny print. I've finally come to the conclusion that the book isn't really in there, and it's safe to dispose of the temporary repositories, if only to make room for more.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m sorry your first experience of e-books was a bad one, Gwilym. I had no problems with my Rocket eReader and now I have a Kindle which is also not perfect but it’s a major step forward. When you read books on it that are correctly formatted (it doesn’t really like PDFs) it’s fine. The refresh rate it adequate and the fonts are sharp and clear. I spent about eight hours yesterday reading one and I had no problems. Where the things does fall down is when you want to do anything other than read a book from cover to cover. Yes, you can do searches but only once the book has been indexed (which in all fairness it does do automatically but not instantaneously and so I found that I couldn’t use some of the textbooks I’d imported the way I needed to right away) and you can write notes and underline but I found once I’d collected a load of these it got confusing. And, yes, you can have hundreds of books on it but you can’t work on more than one at a time. And I could go on and probably will in a blog some time. Suffice to say the technology has some way to go but the important thing is that it’s piqued people’s interests at last.

And, Mairi, I love your little anecdote about the bookshop. It’s funny and tragic too although when it comes to books by genre writers – westerns for example – I can imagine them all blurring into one. I do have to say that it’s only because I still own copies that I know I’ve read certain books. Okay it was thirty years ago I read them but there are a few that I honestly can’t remember a damn thing about. I’ve never had the best of memories and I’m jealous of those who can read a book and retain it especially nowadays when we’re being battered on all sides by information.

Sangu said...

That Christopher Morley quote is fantastic. I've never heard it put so perfectly. This was a great post, Jim.

Art Durkee said...

I watched the whole first season of ST:TNG on a black and white TV, which was all I had at the time, a hand-me-down till I could afford a new set. So color was a real revelation, when I saw the second season start up. I watched the show as any first-generation Trekkie might, with joy and a little irony at times.

I've probably got around 7000 books in the house. I se;; a few off periodically, ones I'm no longer attached to. I had over 10,000 at one time. I'm able to read a book a day, and retain most of it, although these days I usually am reading several books at one time, so each book is spread out a bit.

I agree with you about marketing and gimmicks. I used to work in marketing and advertising, as I think I've mentioned before. The difference between a gimmick and a trend, though, is that a gimmick is rarely a genuine paradigm-changer, while some trends in technology in particular bring about whole new ways of thinking about the world, and being in it. Take this Internet thingie, for instance.

If I'm going to read something on-screen, I prefer to read it on my laptop. I don't really have a use for dedicated e-readers for e-books. For two reasons: I like the feel and smell and look of an actual printed book; and because I'm not likely to ever want to read a book while on the commuter train, because I don't commute to work that way. I do listen to a lot of books on CD when I take long drives, though; I really like that format, because it''s aural rather than visual. When I'm away from home, I do sometimes watch movies on the laptop, too. (I have the latest Star Trek movie on here, for instance. But also one of my all-time favorite concert films, too: Joni Mitchell's Shadows and Light.) And on the laptop I can have multiple windows open, and go back and forth between documents, which is helpful for research.

One of the serious problems I have with e-books is that I read a lot of poetry, and e-books are really designed for prose. (Well, most reading is prose, and there's an unspoken for prose behind a lot of design decisions.) E-books notoriously mess up formatting, and with poetry that's particularly harsh. The obvious solution being to publish poetry e-books as PDFs, which retains formatting while still being zoomable, but as you say not all e-readers handle PDFs well—which is stupid, since PDF is a stable publishing format and has been in the publishing business since the early 1990s. To this day, when I create or design something for print, the best way to send it to the printers is via PDF. So what's the problem guys? That there IS a problem just demonstrates how e-books are still in their infancy, and not at all worked out technology OR in terms of design, as yet. Being the tehcnophile that I am, but working on the leading edge as I often have, I often do not engage in a new technology until more of the bugs are worked out; otherwise, it's more frustrating than anything else.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to agree, Art. Why the Kindle has such a hard job with PDFs is beyond me. Yes, it will read them after a fashion but very badly. I’ve been converting my PDFs to MOBIs but that ruins the tables. My wife bought me it so I’m not going to complain and it will be nice to have to double-check how my own books on it when she finally gets round to doing the e-books for me. I’m really not overly impressed but it is what it is. I’ve been saving my current WIP onto it rather than wasting money on ink and paper so it is a green alternative and I get to see how the pages will look. The catch is that there are several long chat logs in this book which require hanging indents and the Kindle, although it can do hanging indents, can’t do tabs or tables and so they look lousy. The solution was to increase the font size to 22 and then convert to PDF - that works okay.

And, Sangu, yes, it is a good quote. And that’s what I love so much about words that they can take something I know to be true and condense it into a handy phrase like that. I think the worst feeling for a writer is to have something they want to say but don’t have the right words to say it. I was looking for the opposite of glue yesterday and there really isn’t a good word for anti-glue but I muddled through.

Dave King said...

I think you may have stolen a march on me. I was about to write a post on E-readers. My daughter and son-in-law gave me one for Christmas. It has a 100 books in it already. So is it a 100 books? One of them is Kafka's Metamorphosis which I had always meant to read, but never did. I still prefer the paper version, but that's just age maybe. Still, I'm OK with the reader, but struggling to get my head round the concept of a living book! I'll have to brood on that for a bit!

Jim Murdoch said...

I actually wrote this post about five months ago, Dave. Since then I’ve also acquired a new e-book reader, a Kindle, which my lovely wife bought me for Xmas and then gave to me in about October because she couldn’t wait. It’s an okay product for the money but as usual I want it to do things it was not designed to do. I’ve been uploading my current WIP every time I make a new batch of edits and it’s great to be able to sit there and read the book and have it look like a real book. The catch I’ve found is that it doesn’t cope well with hanging indents and tabs and there are a lot of these in this book. I’ve found a way around this purely for my benefit but not one that will work commercially. So I’m a bit annoyed. My first two novels will work just fine on the Kindle and because my poetry is short I think I’ll be able to get that to work okay too but I will have problems with the other two books. The fourth requires either a graphic or a wee table and the Kindle doesn’t like tables either.

Before I started reading my own stuff on it I tried uploading a few textbooks I had in PDF format. The blurb says the Kindle can handle PDFs and it can after a fashion but they’re not easy to read even in landscape. I tried converting them to MOBIs and I lose all the tables. There’s another problem: searching. You can’t import a book and immediately search through it. You have to wait until it has indexed the thing which admittedly it does automatically but it takes time. I wasn’t that impressed with the underlining and note taking options either. Once you have a load done it gets confusing.

But for just reading a book from cover to cover it’s fine. I read my new book yesterday from start to finish for the first time and it was fine – took me about eight hours and I didn’t come away with a blinding headache or anything and I can’t imagine ever reading for that length of time under any other circumstances.

I see a lot of people have got Kindles for Xmas. I will do a proper blog about the thing eventually but not just yet.

Kass said...

Books can be transformative. I'm addicted to books, and to buying books. I doubt I will get to all the books I've bought before I die.

I wonder if you've ever thought of writing a book from the viewpoint of the book? OK, write-me-kind-of-thing

swiss said...

you've got a 42inch tv jim? i never pictured that! nor did i suspect you'd be watching blue harvest let alone the day after tomorrow (which, and i'll freely admit to it as a guilty pleasure, that scene being one of my faves. dire, dire movie tho)

i haven't done the reader thing yet but it'd be super handy for storing all my classics and therefore release some much needed shelf space. i'm waiting to see if i can get a loan of one before i commit.

you don't mention books as tools. i can;t ever see myself annotating an ebook!

Poet Hound said...

You've brought about so many things I rail on about at home! Books are whatever stories ignite something in you, if you ask me. I think the paper version will always be around because even young people still enjoy ink and paper. Staring at a screen will still hurt your eyes faster than ink and paper and it's easier to curl up with a book at night than an e-reader, in my opinion.
The keeping up with the Joneses: Yes, I myself do not have an HDTV nor am I rushing out to get one. I'm happy with my 26 inch non-flat-screen TV and it does just fine--I also only have an antenna on it and get enough channels to satisfy my own tastes. I could care less about the must-haves in the world, I'm still putting off having to use a cell phone.
Thanks for the post, it certainly had me nodding in agreement the whole way.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think if we all really got to know each other, Swiss, we’d be surprised. Who I am online is very much me but it’s not all me. I am a huge Family Guy fan. I even have figurines of Peter, Lois and Stewie in my office as well as Death and Death Dog. I like stimulating TV as much as the next man but I also love escapist stuff too. I watch all Seth MacFarlane’s shows but Family Guy is my favourite by a long chalk. I’m also a big fan of science fiction. I don’t read much of it but if there’s anything vaguely sci-fi on I’ll watch it. Not a great Star Wars fan though and I’ve never quite worked out why. I’ve not even seen Revenge of the Sith and I only half-watched Attack of the Clones. I’ve watched every Star Trek incarnation though and most multiple times.

As far as the e-reader goes if you can go into a shop and have a look at one then do. The two I’ve used are both limited in their functionality but if all you want to do is store and read books they’re fine. As soon as you start wanting to stretch the thing in any way you’ll start to see their limitations. The big letdown with the Kindle for me was how badly it copes with PDFs although I imagine the bigger version will cope better. I personally wouldn’t have bought one just now. I think it’s a little early in the game but as I have one I will make the most out of it.

And, Paula, I’m not actually sure that staring at e-ink for an extended period will be any harder of the eyes than reading a book. I’ve been using my Kindle to proofread my current novel and I sat all day and read it from cover to cover and I didn’t come away feeling like I had eye strain or even a headache.

As I said about the TV we bought it because we needed a new TV. I have lived without one but the bottom line is I like TV. Yes, there is a lot of crap on but there is also a lot of good stuff too. I don’t actually watch a lot of live TV. We tend to tape the stuff and watch it at our leisure. I think this new trend is fantastic. I can still remember what it was like as a kid with no video having to plan our lives around what was on the box. No more though. We’re pretty good about how much we watch and we only watch what we want to watch. I don’t think I’ve watched even a single episode of a soap in maybe thirty years.

I have a mobile phone. I got a call from Virgin a couple of weeks back asking me how much I paid per month to top up my phone. I said the amount was negligible but she didn’t understand me so I said, “£10 a year,” and she was lost for words. I can’t ever imagine wanting to communicate as much as people seem to need to nowadays constantly tweeting and texting and updating social networks. No one’s life is that interesting.

SY said...

I've never really taken the time to think about what a book really is...

but to the living books, in the movie the book of ELI this concept is explored..

what if that person dies

patteran said...

I love books as artifacts. I have thousands, most of which are in boxes in our huge outhouse awaiting the construction of a mega-shed at the end of the garden, the walls of which I shall then line with as many as I can shelve.

Some are firsts - a small collection of John Cowper Powys novels. Others are special - a large collection of books on Gypsies and Travellers, a small number of which are rare and have some value.

Most are just books - paper and card, all at some stage of the decaying process that will do for them in the not-too-distant future. Until then, against all reason and convenience, I shall cherish them.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, I’ve seen that film, Sy, although I didn’t expect the twist at the end I have to say. And you’re perfectly right. I think that’s why it’s especially sad when a writer or an artist dies young because books and paintings that only exist within them will never be read or seen.

And, Dick, I actually only own one first edition of note, a copy of Beckett’s Dream of Fair to Middling Women which my wife bought me as a pressie. It didn’t make the book any easier to read I have to say. Of course when I pick up many of my books I don’t just remember reading them I remember buying them and I don’t think we can easily dismiss that pleasure. I can’t really imagine looking back fondly to the day I downloaded my first e-book. That day has passed and I couldn’t even tell you which one it was. I do actually remember the first e-book I read: George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris but I’m not actually sure where my copy is any more since I’ve had four different computers since then.

Clwyd Probert said...

For me, it's all in a matter of form. And form is very subjective. Ultimately, what gets your stuff and what keeps its presence is the format and location we lay it on. Ebooks are really nice and it's what's easy for now, but I think hardbound reading is still the best way.

Clwyd Probert @ Whitehat

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