Thursday, September 16, 2010

Does Anybody Know What A Book Really Is Anymore?


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimated that about 172,000 books were published in the United States in 2005.

That’s 172,000 titles, not individual books, so you can do the math (say, 1,000 or 2,000 books per title) to figure out how many individual books that might have been.

Chances are, you never got around to reading most of them.  And, knowing how the supply/demand chain of publishing works, I can safely speculate that a large proportion of those titles are now out of print, their unsold copies sent to recycling centers or (gasp) landfills. As any antiquarian book dealer will tell you, the third edition of an author’s fourth book is a whole lot more uncommon than the first edition of an author’s first book.

In fact, when publishers let a bad book go out of print, it’s usually a charitable act, as far as the author’s reputation is concerned.

For many of us, books are important.  After all, we’ve always had books and we always will.  Except when we didn’t and when we won’t.  We’ll always have libraries with books. Except when we might not. People learn by reading books. Except when they can’t and when they don’t.

As the song goes, “These times, they are a –changin’”.

Frankly, the very definitions that anchor our literate worlds are changing.  We speak of “e-books”, except that it’s hard to define what’s specifically “book” about them.  Can you donate your old no-longer-needed e-book to your local library sale or sell it on eBay?  Can you loan it to a friend without loaning that friend your “e-reader”?

Actually, no, you can’t.

So, is it the reader itself that’s “book-like”, because it kinda looks like you’re reading a “glue & paper” book?  If you accidently leave it in your driveway and the delivery guy runs over it, what happens to your collection of mysteries? Or cookbooks? Or whatever?

If the words that are printed on the pages of Melville’s Moby Dick appeared as a scroll on your television below filmed images of a sea voyage, would that be a “book”, too?

Can you use your Kindle as kindling when the power goes out and you need to light a fire to keep warm?

It’s all so confusing!

For those concerned with the very concept that is “The Book” and where it is going in the future, there’s an interesting conference being planned at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, MA for October 28 – 29.   Built around the theme of “Why Books”, the conference will explore “…the form and function of the book in a rapidly changing media ecology.”   It also promises to discuss “… the public-policy implications of new media forms and will explore some of the major functions that we identify with books today: production and diffusion; storage and retrieval; and reception and use.”

The best part may well be the Thursday sessions, which will take “…preregistered participants on “site visits” to various local institutions, including a printing press, a conservation lab, a digital humanities center, and special collections of books and manuscripts.”

Even better – it’s free and open to the public (but you must pre-register online here by October 15th.)

For yet more information, here the blurb from the Radcliffe Institute  and a link to the article describing the issue in greater depth, entitled “Why Books? Why Not”

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