Do not ask me to remain the same

Nicola Dale - Browser (2008)

Definitions are intrinsically time-bound. Imagine the fundamental question of ‘What is a book’. To ask this question at this moment in time means we have to take into account the present transformation or remediation of the book. Definitions concerning the nature of the book need to bare in mind its past as well as its potential future. Any definition is for this reason a highly contextual one. The concept of the book has always been flexible as books are constantly evolving, as is our perception of them. Books have survived various medial changes and they (or we) have always found a way to adapt to their new carriers: from scroll to codex and from paperback to e-book. Rather than to pin-down a static definition of the book, we are better of seeing (the concept of) the book as an unfolding process.

I would like to take a look at a few theorists who, since the coming of the Internet and digital media, have tried to problematize and re-think the definition(s) of the book that were in use before the digital era. To determine whether there exists a common denominator to define the book, and if so, what it is, these theorists have focused on a few aspects of the book. By looking at its specific materiality, and at the way the book’s carrier differs from and influences its content (text), and by comparing the book with other media, they collectively guide the conversation of what a book is and should be, further into the future.

On if:book, the group blog of the Institute for the Future of the Book, some interesting posts on the concept of the book have appeared over the last few years, written by the institute’s staff. Dan Visel, in a post entitled What we talk about when we talk about books (2006), explains how there actually are two main discourses surrounding the book: one that focuses on the physical form of the book (the book as a specific reading-device) and one that focuses on the content of the book. He explains how these discourses have eventually led to some confusion in the digital world were an e-book for many people could mean both the content itself, as well as its carrier (more commonly known as an e-reader). In his post Visel examines how the so-called limited character of the printed book is being challenged by the potentially evolving content of the online edition. He wonders where we draw the boundaries with so-called networked books. Are the texts it connects to via hyperlinking part of the book? Are the readers’ comments part of the book?

Kevin Kelly, Internet dinosaur and one of the founders of Internet-magazine Wired, states in his essay Scan this book! (2006) that a book can hold essentially everything. In his ideal future of the book, the book becomes a kind of synecdoche of the ‘universal library’. As Kelly states, the universal library will consist of ‘the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available to all people, all the time.’ In this world of networked books, no book will be an island (as they are in the print world). Each book will be integrated and connected by means of links and tags. Books transform into one universal book. As Kelly writes: ‘in a curious way, the universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world’s only book.’

Interestingly enough, in Kelly’s view this universal book will incorporate all media, textual media as well as for instance sound and visual media. The writers on the if:book blog wonder however if we, when we use such a broad concept of the book, will not turn it into a meaningless term. Will the book in the end still be a useful concept to use in the online world?

As Roger Sperberg states, in an if:book post entitled What is a book? (2006), a book is foremost something you read, distinguishing it from media that we watch or listen to. He feels that some way or another ‘text’ should remain on the foreground, where text involves a certain amount of what he calls ‘commitment’ from the reader:

‘But if “book” no longer means the intellect is permitted to come to the foreground in this way, if text and how it requires this is diminished to insignificance, then we will have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and what we have then will perhaps be entertaining and educational and absorbing, but it will not be a book, whatever label attaches to it.’

Brian Dettmer - Book Autopsies

Sperberg wonders at what point, with all theses multimedia additions in the online world, we still recognize a ‘book’ as a book. What is the essence of a book? Sperberg feels we should be able to distinguish some salient features or expectations of the book. Visel agrees where he states in his previously mentioned post that we should be looking at similarities and relationships between the objects we commonly denote as books. But both Visel as well as Sperberg admit that this remains a non bullet-proof approach. Sperberg finally throws it on intuition (‘we will know a book as we see it’) and Visel concludes there will probably be multiple futures of the book.

Where in Kelly’s utopian future the (printed) book will in the end give way to the screen as the dominant medium or device for reading, the viewpoints of Robert Darnton—the renowned book historian—are  more inline with Visel’s, where Darnton foresees a hybrid future for the book. In his seminal article The New Age of the Book (1999) he gives a more practice-based outlook on the book, based on the way books are actually being used at the moment. From these usages he distills a future scenario in which printed books and e-books will continue to exist side-by-side. E-books will become an extension of printed books, an add-on. The book as a reading device is just way too good a format to store and communicate information, Darnton explains. It is a very usable format. Furthermore, reading from screens remains an inferior experience, not to say a real hassle for many people. As Darnton concludes, ‘in short, the old-fashioned codex, printed on folded and gathered sheets of paper, is not about to disappear into cyberspace’.

Darnton’s concept of the book is a hybrid one, one that expands from paper into the digital realm. The digital is a supplement or (in some cases) the paper edition is an abstract. The electronic part is particularly useful for certain publics (especially scholars) and certain purposes (scanning, referencing, searching for information). But Darnton does not believe people will in the end read whole books online. Furthermore, he introduces the importance of the cultural practices and institutional and political economy surrounding the book in academia. In a culture in which the printed book plays such an important role in reputation structures, he wonders whether electronic monographs will essentially be acknowledged as books in these communities.

Nicola Dale - The world as I see it (2007)

The approach to the book of literary critic Katherine Hayles—a specialist in the field of electronic literature—is again a different one. Her focus lies not on the way readers’ usage of books determines its future shape, but on the way the specific materiality of a text influences its meaning, and with that our interpretation of the text. As Hayles claims in her article Translating Media: Why We Should Rethink Textuality (2003), one of the main problems with trying to define the book as it is being ‘translated’ into a digital format (which she sees as a re-interpretation of the book) is that, as she states, ‘our notions of textuality are shot through with assumptions specific to print, although they have not been generally recognized as such.’

In Hayles’ vision of the book as it is transforming she agrees with Visel and Sperberg, where in analyzing this process we should think of correspondences (and as Hayles also adds, of dissimilarities!) instead of ontologies. For Hayles it seems however more interesting to look at the processes of the translation of texts from print to the online than looking at the book and e-book as specific objects. We should try to find out what the differences in materiality are between print and electronic textuality and how this specific materiality influences the way we perceive a text. In Hayles’ vision the format of the book and its content are intrinsically connected, and in this way she pulls together and incorporates the two separate discourses surrounding the book mentioned earlier by Visel. Text is not dematerialized and is dependant on its carrier.


Hayles argues that when we claim the digital is immaterial, we bring along our print-centered notions. Thes kind of notions can be found in both the work of Kelly, as well as in the work of someone who in many ways can be seen as Kelly’s opponent, Sven Birkerts. Birkerts is a literary critic and author of The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), a work very critical of electronic media and online reading. Both in Birkerts’ as well as in Kelly’s view digital text can be seen as missing a specific materiality. With Kelly this immateriality of text and its translation into binary code leads him to perceive all online media as one digital muddle, giving it the potential to mix and recombine with other dematerialized media into ‘a single liquid fabric’. In Birkerts’ opinion on the other hand this immateriality is a big loss. In The Gutenberg Elegies he states that ‘nearly weightless though it is, the word printed on a page is a thing. The configuration of impulses on a screen is not (…)’ For Birkerts it is very important that the materiality of print fixes the word, where the fleeing and weightless character of online text is detrimental to the autonomy of the word and eventually, as Birkerts concludes, it will be detrimental to the autonomy of the self.

But as Hayles tries to argue, we cannot perceive of a text as an ‘immaterial construction independent from its carrier.’ Books undergo a transformation when they enter the digital domain, an aspect too easily neglected by for instance Kelly. Text is not simply digital bits; in its digital counterpart it also has a specific form or materiality. As Hayles writes, electronic textuality ‘cannot be separated from the delivery vehicles that produce it as a process with which the user can interact.’ In her view of the specificity of digital texts, text becomes a distributed phenomenon. She sees a text as an embodied entity, which in the virtual world can be embodied in various reading devices.

Hayles seems to push the discussion on the book to a higher level where in her view we can not determine or distract what a book is from (looking at) its materiality. We can only look at the way the book’s physicality influences the way we perceive a text. We can only look at a book’s content and how this is influenced by its materiality, in which this materiality can, as Hayles sees it, extend beyond the individual object. A text’s materiality is an interaction between the specific format the text is molded in and the specific meaning or content of the text. As Hayles concludes, in this discourse ‘texts would routinely be discussed both in terms of their conceptual content and their physical embodiments.’

            From this short review of different attempts to describe the ever-changing phenomenon of the book, it seems there are various (perhaps even inexhaustible) ways to analyze this increasingly distributed phenomenon. We can look at the similarities and dissimilarities of the different shapes the book shifts into, and we can compare these with the appearances of other media; we can look at the way we ‘recognize’ a book, both in its more intuitive sense as well as the in the way we acknowledge something as a book within certain cultural discourses; we can look at the way a book is used, or we can look at its utopian or dystopian potential as a theoretical concept extracted from its format; and, we can focus on its specific materiality or on a combination of a particular device and its content. All approaches, from looking at the medium to looking at its usage and the discourses surrounding it, seem to add some flavor to the discussion. Perhaps we can only get closer to the transforming book by accepting and stimulating such a plurality of viewpoints. Just like the book itself, the discussion on the book will keep on expanding further into the digital future.


One comment on “Do not ask me to remain the same

  1. Pingback: Do Not Ask Me to Remain the Same (2010) | Nicola Dale

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