What is a Book?

Yin Liu

Vindolanda Tablets

Vindolanda Tablets (Roman Britain, circa AD 100). Photo by Michel wal, Wikimedia Commons.

The question “What is a Book?” is not very easy to answer. If you consult the most comprehensive dictionary of English, the Oxford English Dictionary (which you can do if your library has an online subscription), you will find (as of 3 September 2016) this as the primary and oldest definition: “A portable volume consisting of a series of written, printed, or illustrated pages bound together for ease of reading.” But then there is a more detailed discussion in small print:

In modern use the pages are typically printed and made of paper, and are usually trimmed to a uniform rectangular or square shape, sewn or glued together along one side to form a flat or rounded back, and encased in a protective cover, but other materials and construction methods may be used. In early and historical use, and with reference to non-Western cultures, book may refer to a literary work in portable form written on a wide variety of other materials (as vellum, parchment, papyrus, cotton, silk, palm leaves, bark, tablets of wood, ivory, slate, metal, etc.), and put together in any of a number of forms (as a scroll, or as separate leaves which may be hinged, strung, stitched, or glued together). (“book, n.,” OED Online [Oxford University Press, June 2016], sense 1a)

It is obvious from this rather complex attempt at definition that a “book,” in English, can take many different physical forms. It can be made of a variety of materials and can come in various formats. “Books” may be wooden tablets, papyrus scrolls, parchment codices, printed volumes, electronic texts. It may be more useful to define “book” in terms of function: a “book” is primarily a reading device, a form of technology for storing and displaying textual information.

Real Ink vs. E-Ink

[Image: Adrian Hon, “Real Ink vs E-Ink,” available on Flickr.]

If that is the case, then to focus exclusively on the book as material object will give us too narrow a view of the history of the book – not least if we wish to consider the possible futures of the book as well, because how will we be able to predict what forms future reading devices will take? There is indeed an academic discipline called “history of the book” or “book history,” but it has its own history, and therefore its own baggage, that is in some ways too narrow as well (for more on this issue, see my post on the Medieval Codes project blog, “Not Dead Yet“). Let me suggest that a more fruitful approach is to consider the history of reading – that is, not only of the physical devices that we use to read, but also of the personal practices, social structures, and human implications of our information and communications technologies. Just as we should not assume that a “book” was and will be always what we envision when we think of a “book,” we should not assume that people always read or will read for the same reasons and in the same ways that we read today.

This entry was posted in Definitions. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *