The other day at work I had an impassioned conversation with a customer over what characterizes a book – that is to say, a solid, tangible, paperbound object – versus an e-book, that increasingly popular digital commodity that is poised to take over the world of literature, if it has not already done so.
One of the things I pointed out about e-books is that they’re not actually ‘books’ at all. Even a completed novel or biography isn’t technically a ‘book’ until it has been bound and placed between two covers. Before a collection of human thoughts is transformed into what we call a ‘book’, it is merely a story, a manuscript, a document, or a text. I sold my first novel to a publisher in March of this year, and I will continue to refer to it as ‘my novel’ until multiple copies of it have been printed and bound, whereupon I will finally be able to refer to it as ‘my book’.
I am not opposed to my novel existing as an e-book per se, but seeing my words on the screen of an e-reader would feel no different than seeing them on my own computer screen, and my instinct to edit might kick back in. I would not be able to escape the feeling that my manuscript had reverted to some earlier and less-formed version of itself. It would be nothing more than an electronic file on a computer device, just as it was the day I wrote down the first sentence on a blank Word document and clicked ‘Save As’.
My book, however, with its flip-able pages and author photo, its carefully chosen cover design and back-cover synopsis, its tangibility, papery scent and, dare I say it, its personality – now that is a thing unto itself. The thing I am most proud of in my apartment is my book shelf, which I show off every chance I get. I would simply not experience the same joy in showing someone the list of titles stored in my e-reader.
I do not mean to argue the advantages of paperbound books over their electronic counterparts. The contents of both are, for the most part, the same, and the differences lie mainly in medium. I am simply pointing out a semantic fact. E-books are not ‘books’ but digitized compositions. They exist only in theory, in an electronic realm, and do not cause the hearts of bibliophiles everywhere to throb with unbridled booklust. If you’re anything like me, your love of books extends beyond the story between the covers, and spills over – sometimes literally, in the form of coffee or spaghetti sauce – onto the object itself.
To emphasize my point, even Wikipedia, which revolutionized the accessibility of digital information and has all but eliminated the use of paperbound encyclopaedias, knows enough to set the record straight. Call up the article for ‘Book’ on that website and the very first sentence reads: “A book is a book.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Stacey Madden holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and has worked at Book City in Toronto for many years. His first novel, Poison Shy, will be published by ECW Press in Fall 2012.
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