What does it mean to be a book?

Recently I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a book. What makes a book, a “book”? I’m willing to bet that when you see the word “book” you think of a physical container for words that are printed on paper, bound within covers and sits on a bookshelf. Wikipedia agrees with you:

A book is a set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, fastened together to hinge at one side. A single sheet within a book is a leaf, and each side of a leaf is a page.

It seems that the physicality of a book has a lot to do with its book-ness. In other words, when we think of a book it’s usually as something that we can hold. This makes sense in a historical context because writing in books was an evolution of previous systems that allowed the recording of words and ideas onto some kind of natural material e.g. tablets (clay, not Apple). When you actually think about it, maybe the only reason we think of books as printed collections of words is because for the past several hundred years that’s all they were. Maybe we think of a book as a collection of words printed on bound paper because that is all we have ever known a book to be.

If we consider the design principle that form should follow function we see that the purpose of a thing should define it’s form. In other words, if the purpose of a book is to record and preserve ideas with the intent of sharing them at scale with others, then we should choose a form that allows us to most effectively achieve that function. For most of our recent history, printing words onto paper was pretty much the only way that complex ideas could survive the death of a person. While oral traditions of preserving and sharing ideas are also valid, they don’t scale when it comes to sharing with very large numbers of people.

We should be asking what technology currently exists that enables books to take on a form that allows them to better achieve the function of storing and sharing ideas at scale over extended periods of time? Why do we still think of a “book” as a thing that sits on a shelf, when digital tools enable us to create new forms of books that are better suited to achieving their function. And I’m not talking about PDFs as digital versions of books. The PDF version of a printed book differs only in degree from the printed version and its fundamental properties are generally the same. For example, the PDF is “better” than the print version because we can make more copies at a lower cost. This property makes the cost of distribution (i.e. copying) of PDFs essentially zero. But besides decreasing the cost of efficient distribution, how else is the PDF of a book different to a printed book?

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What if “books” could be more than a collection of printed pages (whether the “print” and “page” is ink- or pixel-based)? What if, instead of thinking of books in terms of their physical properties (i.e. what they look and feel like) we think of them in terms of collections of ideas that are stored and shared over time (i.e. what books are for)? Now we’re talking about separating the function of a book from its form, and digital technology is inherently suited for this. In the default idea of “book”, form and content are intricately tied together. Words are collected into sentences, paragraphs and chapters, and printed onto pages. The words and the pages are inseparable.

“Digital” allows us to abstract ideas out into smaller collections (much smaller than chapters), which can be shared, modified and repurposed far more easily than 20 printed pages collected into a chapter. Instead of thinking of words, sentences and paragraphs as collections in a chapter, we can think of them as discrete ideas – down to the “word” level – which can then be categorised and presented as such. It means that we could, for example, allow for readers to search for ideas and abstract concepts, rather than just words. Imagine putting together a custom textbook that is made of excerpts or ideas from a variety of other books that are created this way, in a similar process to what we can currently do with books created in Wikipedia. Imagine if readers could download and share, not only single chapters of a book, but single ideas?

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“Digital” means that we can separate the form and content of writing so that we can focus on creating content leaving computers to focus on form. Machine readability is what allows me to write a blog post in plain text and leave the formatting and presentation of my content to the WordPress theme that I have installed on my blog. It’s what allows my content to show up, stripped of formatting and design, in your Pocket reader when you save it to read later. It’s what allows you to subscribe to my posts and have my content show up in whatever format and device you choose to receive it in.

Machine readability allows affordably serving the information to a wider variety of users (in a presentation that they can understand), where users may be humans or machines. This requires the ability to recast abstractions in new instances quickly and cheaply (that is, without time-consuming reworking), which generally requires automation rather than person-hours of labor.

Responsive design is the idea that content will take the form of whatever device you’re using to access it, and has become a foundational principle of modern digital design. If you’re a content creator, you need to ensure that your work is going to take whatever form the content consumer requires it to. If they’re on a 20 inch monitor, it needs to look as good as it does on a 4 inch phone screen. Try making a PDF do that.

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This is the power of separating out content and presentation. How a thing looks is different to what it does. So we come back to the idea that a book is a container of ideas, not words, which means that the way in which the ideas are expressed, stored and shared need have nothing to do with the ideas themselves. A book therefore, does not actually need to be a book.

Now that we’ve separated form from function, what does that allow us to do with the “collection of ideas” (i.e. the book)? Well, for one thing, it removes the requirement that ideas are presented linearly. When you can break up the ideas into discrete items, they can be remixed, distributed and presented in non-linear ways e.g. using hyperlinks to connect different ideas in different places. It also means that the “book” can be presented and shared as either a physically printed volume, an ebook, an audiobook, a website, an RSS feed or an email newsletter.

By using digital tools, we lose nothing (we can still print the book) and gain several advantages that print simply cannot provide. For example, you could make sections of the book available to be distributed as embedded content or as streams of content (via RSS) rather than PDF pages. One practical benefit of this is that further distribution is possible in very simple ways. Just like a tweet can be embedded in any website, a section of content from the book could be embedded into any other media. Think what this would mean for generating discussion and debate around your content, as opposed to emailing a PDF of a whole book around.

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Finally, on a more pragmatic level publishing a book – not just as an ebook but also as a website, RSS feed, or mobile app – provides the following benefits:

  • You can include animations, audio interviews, linking out to external content, and embedding videos.
  • Digital text can be converted to audio via text-to-speech software, creating access for people with disabilities.
  • The separation of content and presentation means that you could edit and update content via a content management system, which means that errors can be corrected at no cost, and the updated content is propagated through the system, changing automatically whenever it is viewed.
  • New chapters could be added or modified over time at no cost. There would be no need for updated editions that are distributed in cargo containers to other countries because every instance of the “book” is the most up-to-date version.

Taking all of the above into account, what is the value of publishing a physical book in hard copy? I honestly can’t think of any reasons that are not rooted in legacy or simple momentum, for us to seriously consider printing words onto paper, binding them together and shipping them around the world. I think that in order for us to most effectively share our ideas with others is to ask what it means – in a digital age – to be a book?