The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the word “book,” while ultimately of Germanic origin, has an extremely complicated etymological past. It’s a word that’s existed in many different languages, cognates and forms including, among others, bōk, buok, boec and buoh, each implying something slightly different, but all referring to the way in which humans record information and ideas. The word has experienced as many changes in form as the concept itself. In the modern world, the word “book” often seems to be synonymous with the word “story.” We often use the physical properties of books to talk about the abstract qualities of story. When we profess to be bookworms or booklovers, when we comment that something “jumps off the page,” or is “a real page-turner,” we imbue in stories a kind of physical materiality that is not necessarily present, nor has it always been present in the past. While we are often satisfied by this materiality of books, their great appeal is the stories inside them. By valuing the physical form of the book over the story, even in small idiomatic ways, we create a culture of storytelling that prioritizes print culture at the expense of other forms of media.
The physical form a story takes has always been important to us. For a story to be deemed real and worth reading, it must be bound; it needs to have a physical presence within our lives. For those of us who enjoy reading, is it not satisfying to feel the weight of a book in your hands? Is it not both stressful and a relief to progress page by page from one cover to the other? These are some of the main arguments people have against e-books, and I often want to agree with them. They are, however, also futile arguments that misunderstand the way stories work. Arguments that insist the physical, paper book is superior fetishize form and materiality in the place of storytelling and even create an elitist standard of literary production and consumption.
Indeed, the thing that we typically call a book—a quantity of pages bound by a front and back cover—not only varies wildly in its physical characteristics, it is also a relatively new phenomenon.
Books have certainly existed for a very, very long time. Monks bound manuscripts in covers for the sake of convenience, storage and preservation before Europe was even what we know as Europe. Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth century facilitated the mass production of typeset books. But that book you have, the New York Times Bestseller you’ve been itching to get to, the one with the beautiful cover art and several overworked but unnamed editors—that’s a new development, one that’s only existed for about 250 years, and that’s being very generous.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The first books weren’t the novels of today.[/pullquote]
When books first came into being, they weren’t the novels we read today. The origins of the novel are debated (as well as the definition of a novel), but the most recognizable form of the novel came into being in the mid-eighteenth century. Of course, saying “came into being” makes it sound like a coherent and identifiable novel suddenly rolled off the presses as if by magic, instead of being a hugely varied, piecemeal process that spanned over centuries. By the mid-nineteenth century books as novels were in full swing, published as “triple deckers,” or the three-volume novel (think Dickens). By the end of the century, however, many authors retreated to shorter novels, even novellas, and the increase in literary periodicals made short stories popular, easily consumed units of publication.
Technology has always had storytelling champing at the bit to move forward and transform. It probably goes without saying that the Internet has allowed for storytelling on an unprecedented scale. Between fan fiction, YouTube, Netflix, personal blogs and even advertising, storytellers have not only “jumped off the page,” they really have no intention of looking back. While platforms like YouTube and Netflix extend from a tradition of performance and theater, they often have distinct book-like qualities. Often they promote content adapted from novels. These platforms begin to bridge the gap between theatrical traditions and serial fiction. Also, where books have failed to contain the life of a story, readers have turned into writers to expand and add to its universe. Authors have used the Internet to control that growth, to allow their stories to grow on their terms. I don’t mean to suggest here that books are old news, simply that books are not the only form of legitimate storytelling, that their value is not inherently greater just because they are on paper. Stories rarely end at the close of a book, and they rarely start there either. While we are still writing books, we are also deconstructing them, interrogating what it means for something to be a book. Is it a physical thing? An abstract concept? [pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The book is dead. Long live the book.[/pullquote] A constantly shifting figment of our collective imaginations? In the end, books are part of a larger system of communication that requires the existence of the other forms of media in order to exist and grow.
The book is dead. Long live the book.