When we think of the word ‘book,’ the image that probably comes to mind is a physical object with pages made of paper bound together between a cover. But this is a very narrow idea of what ‘book’ means. If we confine our idea of book to a physical object made out of paper, we leave out e-books, audiobooks, and other products of the digital age. Recently audiobook seller Audible announced a feature called Captions, which would allow audiobook users to read along with the recording. This development provoked outrage among publishers, but it also led one writer to question what a book actually is. The question is not a new one.
In his 1951 essay “On the Cult of Books,” Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges presents an overview of different philosophies on writing and reading, from the idea that writing is dangerous (Plato and Clement of Alexandria) to the idea of an archetypal book that lives in heaven (Muhammad al-Ghazali) to the idea that the universe itself is a book (Francis Bacon and Thomas Brown). All of these philosophies paint a much broader concept of ‘book’ than ‘physical object.’
So what is a book? I would posit that a book is the expression of an idea and the release of that expression into the world in some kind of lasting form. A conversation with your friends is not a book, but a podcast, for example, is. This definition encompasses print books, audiobooks, and ebooks, but it goes much further than that. A podcast is a book. A piece of art is a book. The universe is a book.
As Borges notes, books emerged out of a tradition of oral storytelling whose continued existence essentially depended on word of mouth. Books, on the other hand, are independent entities, but their purpose is the same—storytelling. If we think about the many ways print books tell a story, we can see how the term ‘book’ can be applied to almost anything. Most obviously, a print book tells a story using words—and often pictures. But it also tells a story through the fonts, the design, the colors, how worn it is, what the pages feel like, and even where it is in time and space. Similarly, a piece of art tells a story not only through what it portrays, but also through its medium, condition, and setting.
What is the benefit of expanding the meaning of ‘book’? None, maybe. And for most people, there is nothing wrong with thinking of a book as a physical object with pages. But using a narrow definition of ‘book’ makes us all the more likely to overlook everything about a book except the words. Books are more than just words, and a broader concept of ‘book’ can shed some light on that fact.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” 1951.