15th Century

What is a book?


Thomas Evans, Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative with Some of Modern Date (1774)

book [bʊk] noun. book; plural noun: books; noun: the book: a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.

Above is a standard dictionary definition of the word ‘book’. However, I’ve just finished reading an excellent article by Leslie Howsam in a book which she edited called The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book (2015) which has made me rethink the way that I think about a book. As a collector of second-hand books, and someone whose PhD project makes forays into book history, Howsam’s article was a fascinating read, forcing readers to consider what, exactly, a book is.

Do we read ‘books,’ or do we read texts? These are the types of issues which Howsam deals with in her article, and which, published this year, represents the latest research in the field of book history, and I’ll attempt to summarise the article here.

When we think of the word ‘book,’ most people, myself included, usually think of the material form of a body of knowledge or stories. We think of what is known as the ‘Codex’. And yet when one studies the history of the book, this common conception becomes problematic. Books existed before there were codices. In Ancient Greece and Rome people read ‘books,’ but their material form was different to today: there were scrolls. In Ancient Mesopotamia, Howsam points out, they had books, but their books were written on clay tablets. The codex (the material form of a text which we would recognise, in which the leaves of a book are bound together) only emerged in the second century CE.

Is this a book?

Is this a book?

Indeed, Howsam does not mention it specifically, but her article got me thinking of the Bible. Pick up any copy of a Bible from a bookstore and you will be, in effect, buying a book, that is a codex, in which paper leaves are bound together. But then read inside and you will see that there are actually books within books. There is ‘The First Book of Moses, Commonly called Genesis,” “The Book of Exodus.’ So there are numerous books within a book. The material form in which we buy these many combined books (a library of books, as that is what the word Bible means) is a book, but the actual books are inside the covers.

And so Howsam argues that a book is many things:

  1. A book is a text.
  2. A book is an object.
  3. A book is a transaction.
  4. A book is an experience.

The Book as a Text.

So a book must have text. An author writes the text. This can be a work of fiction, or a factual text such as a history or a science book. Literary critics tend to consider texts only, apart from their social, economic, and cultural contexts, whereas an historian might concentrate, not so much on the text of an historic book itself, but on its significance. And this is where, argues Howsam, that book history can make valuable contributions to both fields. But a text is not solely the work of an author. Editors edit texts, typesetters set the print type, and publishers publish the text.

A comic - is it a 'book'?

A comic – is it a ‘book’?

The Book as an Object

The materiality of books is another aspect of a text that is frequently overlooked by scholars, usually due to the significance of their texts. Once the words of an author have taken physical form, on a sheet of paper, they are a book. And this is why we can class magazines, comics, and periodicals as books also. Books are objects: material things.

The Book as a Cultural Transaction

The book as a cultural transaction signifies, in Howsam’s words:

A relationship of communication and exchange (often commercial exchange) that operates within a culture and a political economy.

The transaction can be ‘the nexus between one reader and another, as well as the interplay between the reader and writer implied in the every day act of reading.’ However, the transaction is also between author and publisher,  between publisher and bookseller, who publish and sell books.

The Book as an Experience

Everyone reacts to books: ‘the reader, the collector, and the scholar, all in their different ways, react emotionally and intellectually to the books in their purview.’ These responses are based, yes, on the genre of the text they are reading (some people like Romance novels, others like fantasy novels), however, these reactions to books can only take place once a the text has received its material form, once it has been edited, bound, and gone through cultural and commercial transactions. And readers reactions may stem from many things. For example, for some readers the (commercial) price of a book will give them a certain reaction to the text.

Are ebooks books?

Are ebooks books?

Ebooks, etc.

Howsam also looks forward in her introductory essay to the future. Will ebooks replace the material book? Will a book still be called a book if it is only online. Indeed, and this is my sidenote to Howsam’s work, I think that in our demarcation of the ‘ebook’ we are already implicitly arguing that an ebook is not a book. Somehow it is a different entity, and mimics the way that scrolls were written, as continuous texts (Howsam makes the point here about the similarity between ebooks and ancient scrolls, noting that we tend to ‘scroll down’ a page when looking at a text on a screen).

So as can be seen from Howsam’s article, the word ‘book’ cannot be summarised in a single sentence. It is certainly much more than the dictionary definition above would imply.

Further Reading:

Leslie Howsam (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

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