I remember walking into my local library when I was young. I can’t tell you if it was the first time I’d been inside, or whether it was another time much later; my memory isn’t that good. What I do remember is the sensation of it, the vibrations of rooms filled with things that smelled of dust and contained entire worlds. The desk where you requested the extraction of said objects from their place of residence seems in my head to have stretched up to the sky, the librarian on the other side a giant in her t-shirt and cardigan. The desk was of a polished dark wood, the colour and shine of a fresh chestnut, and it resembled more of a pulpit than anything else. There’s not much I can remember terribly clearly about this place – I think the walls were white and there were either empty frames of enormous windows inside separating the sections – but the sense of awe in a young child stays with me.
This was where the books lived.
So I would toddle off down the stacks in search of new adventures. I was probably one of those menace children that pulls everything off the shelves and never puts them back again. I know for certain I was one of those children who thought they’d outgrown kiddies’ books fairly quickly and wanted to explore the secrets of the adult section (i.e. every other part of the library).
This faded memory holds inside of it the wonderment of childhood and the reverence of the written word. I feel something similar shiver through me as I enter a bookshop, particularly those large places with multiple floors, or the independent bookshops, all higgeldy-piggeldy stacked with old volumes and new releases.
Yet one thing is very clear about these experiences: it is not the places themselves that deliver such strong emotion, but the things that they contain; it is the possibilities bound in multiple pages, paper and ink.
The book is something that currently seems to be going through what can only be described as an existential crisis. I think this has been going on for some time. As the eBook advanced into our world, the question of what constitutes an actual book has been a continuous circulatory argument.
On the one hand you have the great romanticists – a common breed – who see the book as I described above in the libraries and bookshops: something tangible, something made of paper with tiny letters printed upon them. On the other, we have the futurists, declaring the codex as we know it is dying and that the digital technologies we are developing at such a rate will soon find the printed book a thing obsolete. (Personally, this view is both narrow-minded and ridiculous. But we’ll save that argument for another time.)
Somewhere in the middle is, basically, everyone else. That is, these are the people who are neither sentimental nor detached enough to really form an opinion about whether print or digital is best. And, as with most things in life, this is probably the most accurate and reasonable representation of the debate – after all, does it really matter what medium a book is read in? Isn’t the fact they’re being read at all the important thing?
So when I refer to the book as an object right now, I’m not thinking of it in these terms. Instead, we look beyond what a thing looks like (never judge by its cover and all that…) and more what purpose it serves. This perhaps comes to the root of what the book’s crisis is all about: what, exactly, is it?
The Oxford English Dictionary says that the book is ‘a written or printed work consisting of pages fastened together along one side and bound in covers’. That, for something with such value, is the most boring description of what a book is that I can think of. And there is some argument to say that it is both so sweeping in its generalisation as to be inaccurate and so precise in its estimation as to be wrong (again with the eBook debate). Magazines, for instance, are exactly covered by this definition, but I know most people would agree there is a distinction between the two. The Dulux paint catalogue is another. Forgive me, Dulux paint catalogues, but you don’t exactly get me all flustered as I wander around B&Q, and I certainly don’t intend to pay for a pre-order of next season’s shades of magnolia. Therefore, and I hope the OED will forgive me for such arrogance, this definition is wholly inadequate when explaining what a book is.
But what are the alternatives? When something as ubiquitous and unique as the book is in existence, how can you possibly boil its definition down to just a handful of words? This post was supposed to be over several paragraphs ago, yet I’ve barely started. Such is the nature of bookdom.
Yet, as we come to the definition of another word, perhaps we come closer. It is, quite simply, the definition of ‘object’.
‘1. a physical thing that can be seen and touched. 2. a person or thing to which an action or feeling is directed… 3. a purpose.’
Ignoring the eBook debate again for the third time, on this occasion in relation to OED’s first point, the book as an object becomes more of a truth. Books, no matter their subject, genre or position in a shop, are created for a purpose that is to be shared through reading in the hopes that a response will come from the reader, whether that be something like a laugh, a tear, or an expanded understanding of things.
On this point, it would seem the debate is over. Hallelujah! I have the answer! Obviously the book is an object. But didn’t we already know that?
There is another factor in this debate that I think is difficult to speak about but comes to the crux of it quite simply: the question of value.
When I was that little girl wandering through that library, the wonderment in my big, blue eyes has no price. As I sit back in bed and read the words and author has taken the time and effort to share with me, the sensation alone is priceless too. But there is a price, usually somewhere between the £2.81 minimum on Amazon.co.uk and the £19.99 of a beautiful new hardback from the shop. There is a price to the cost of the production of that hardback, from the paper to the ink to the design on the cover. There’s a price for the editor that went through each page with a pencil and a dictionary in the hope of perfecting brilliance. There’s a price for the author, who wrote the thing in the first place. There’s even the price for the teacher who taught a young person to put pen to paper and make words happen. There’s a price for export, import, general distribution. For marketing and campaigns and signings and sellings and signatures on front pages. Books as objects are a commodity.
The problem with considering books as commodities then lies in the way they are created. The question stops being ‘what value does this book have for the individual reader?’ but ‘how many people will read this?’ And even that is fraught with complexities, the subjectivity of the individual playing its part as well – one man’s great epic is another man’s drivel.
Considering the book as an object, therefore, is no simple definition of a thing but a spiralling question of its relation to everything else. Value in a book becomes both personal and economic. Where does one end and the other begin? I don’t know. Perhaps there is no beginning or end, but merely a cycle that is becoming more and more involved with itself, and from that vortex a myriad of other problems begin to emerge – the cost of eBooks versus print books; the payment of authors; the necessity of professional editors and designers; self-publishing.
It would be lovely to make everything stop so that we may discuss the complexities of books so that a solution to this tangle can be found. But the world doesn’t work that way, and the cogs of the publishing industry will continue to turn as long as people fall in love with books to purchase and then, perhaps, write them so that they may be sold in the future. Voices over recent years have demanded a change in this, that something must be down to protect the integrity of these objects and the people who create them. But where do we even start?
Maybe we start by asking ourselves what it is that makes a book beyond the material existence. Or, instead, maybe we should go to the children’s section of a library and ask there…