Category Archives: conferences

what we talk about when we talk about books

I spent the past weekend at the Fourth International Conference on the Book, hosted by Emerson College in Boston this year. I was there for a conversation with Sven Birkerts (author of The Gutenberg Elegies) which happened to kick off the conference. The two of us had been invited to discuss the future of the book, which is a great deal to talk about in an hour. While Sven was cast as the old curmudgeon and I was the Young Turk, I’m not sure that our positions are that dissimilar. We both value books highly, though I think my definition of book is a good deal broader than his. Instead of a single future of the book, I suggested that we need to be talking about futures of the book.
This conciliatory note inadvertently described the conference as a whole, the schedule of which can be inspected here. The subjects discussed wandered all over the place, from people trying to carry out studies on how well students learned with an ebook device to a frankly reactionary presentation of book art. Bob Young of Lulu proclaimed the value of print on demand for authors; Jason Epstein proclaimed the value of print on demand for publishers. Publishers wondered whether the recent rash of falsified memoirs would hurt sales. Educators talked about the need for DRM to encrypt online texts. There was a talk on using animals to deliver books which I’m very sorry that I missed. A Derridean examination of the paratexts of Don Quixote suggested out that for Cervantes, the idea of publishing a book – as opposed to writing one – suggested death, perhaps what I’d been trying to argue last week.
Everyone involved was dealing with books in some way or another; a spectrum could be drawn from those who were talking about the physical form of the book and those who were talking about content of the book entirely removed from the physical. These are two wildly different things, which made this a disorienting conference. The cumulative effect was something like if you decided to convene a conference on people and had a session with theologians arguing about the soul in one room while in another room a bunch of body builders tried to decide who was the most attractive. Similarly, everyone at the Conference on the Book had something to do with books; however, many people weren’t speaking the same language.
This isn’t necessarily their fault. One of the most apt presentations was by Catherine Zekri of the Université de Montréal, who attempted to decipher exactly what a “book” was from usage. She noted the confusion between the object of the book and its contents, and pointed out that this confusion carried over into the electronic realm, where “ebook” can either mean a device (like the Sony Reader) or the text that’s being read on the device. A thirty-minute session wasn’t nearly long enough to suss out the differences being talked about, and I’ll be interested to read her paper when it’s finally published.
As an experiment paralleling Zekri’s, here are three objects:


There are certain similarities all of these objects share: they’re all made of paper and have a cover and pages. Some similarities are only shared by some of the objects: what’s the best way of grouping these? Three relationships seem possible. Objects 1 & 2 were bought containing text; object 3 was blank when bought, though I’ve written in it since. Objects 2 & 3 are bound by staples; object 1 is bound by glue. Objects 1 & 3 were written by a single person (Maurice Blanchot in the case of 1, myself in the case of 3); object 2 was written by a number people.
If we were to classify these objects, how would we do it? Linguistically, the decision has already been made: object 1 is a book, object 2 is a magazine, and object 3 is a notebook, which is, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “a small book with blank or ruled pages for writing notes in”. By the words we use to describe them, objects 1 & 3 are books. A magazine isn’t a book: it’s “a periodical publication containing articles by various writers” (the OED again). This is something seems intuitive: a magazine isn’t a book. It’s a magazine.
But why isn’t a magazine a book, especially if a notebook is a book? If you look again at the relationships I suggested between the three objects above, the shared attributes of the book and the magazine seem more logical and important than the attributes shared between the book and the notebook. Why don’t we think of a magazine as a book? To use the language of evolutionary biology, the word “book” seems to be a polyphyletic taxon, a group of descendants from a common ancestor that excludes other descendants from the same ancestor.
One answer might be that a single issue of a magazine isn’t complete; rather, it is part of a sequence in time, a sequence which can be called a magazine just as easily as a single issue can. I can say that I’ve read a book, which presumably means that I’ve read and understood every word in it. I can say the same thing about a particular issue of The Atlantic (“I read that magazine.”). I can’t say the same thing about the entire run of The Atlantic, which started long before I was born and continues today. A complete edition of The Atlantic might be closer to a library than a book. Or maybe the problem is time: the date on the cover foregrounds a magazine’s existence in time in a way that a book’s existence in time isn’t something we usually think about.
To expand this: I looked up these definitions in the online OED, where the dictionary exists as a database that can be queried. Is this a book? I have a single-volume OED at home with much the same content, though the online version has changed since the print edition: it points out that since 1983, the word “notebook” can also mean a portable computer. My copy of the OED at home is clearly a book; is the online edition, with its evolving content, also a book? (A stylistic question: we italicize the title of a book when we use it in text – do we italicize the title of a database?)
We’ve been calling things like Wikipedia, which goes even further than the online OED in terms of its mutability over time, a “networked book”. But even with much simpler online projects, issues arise: take Gamer Theory, for example. If much the content of what appears on the Gamer Theory website appears in Harvard University Press’s version of the book, most people would agree that the online version is a book, or a draft of one. But what are the boundaries of this kind of book? Are the comments in the website part of the book? Is the forum part of the book? Are the spam comments that we deleted from the forum part of the book? This also has something to do with Bob’s post on Monday, where he wondered how sharply defined the authorial voice of a book needs to be to make it worthwhile as a book.
What we have here is a language problem: the forms that we can create are evolving faster than our language – and possibly our understanding – can keep up with them.

transmitting live from cambridge: wikimania 2006

wikimania logoI’m at the Wikimania 2006 conference at Harvard Law School, from where I’ll be posting over the course of the three-day conference (schedule). The big news so far (as has already been reported in a number of blogs) came from this morning’s plenary address by Jimmy Wales, when he announced that Wikipedia content was going to be included in the Hundred Dollar Laptop. Exactly what “Wikipedia content” means isn’t clear to me at the moment – Wikipedia content that’s not on a network loses a great deal of its power – but I’m sure details will filter out soon.

This move is obvious enough, perhaps, but there are interesting ramifications of this. Some of these were brought out during the audience question period during the next panel that I attended, in which Alex Halavis talked about issues of evaluating Wikipedia’s topical coverage, and Jim Giles, the writer of the Nature study comparing the Wikipedia & the Encyclopædia Britannica. The subtext of both was the problem of authority and how it’s perceived. We measure the Wikipedia against five hundred years of English-language print culture, which the Encyclopædia Britannica represents to many. What happens when the Wikipedia is set loose in a culture that has no print or literary tradition? The Wikipedia might assume immense cultural importance. The obvious point of comparison is the Bible. One of the major forces behind creating Unicode – and fonts to support the languages used in the developing world – is SIL, founded with the aim of printing the Bible in every language on Earth. It will be interesting to see if Wikipedia gets as far.