A Book is a Book: What is a Book?
When you hear the word book, what comes to mind?
I know may feel like an odd question, since we talk about books so routinely that the answer seems obvious. But stripping away everything but the word itself, what does it really mean? Is there a length or a format that’s intrinsic to the definition of the word for you? Do you think about certain genres or physical sizes or design elements like covers?
I’m asking this because it appears to me that the “book” as a thing, and as something that encompasses the experience of reading, is changing rapidly and in varying ways. From the rise of audiobooks, which are essentially a performance of a story, to digital books, which take form in the device on which they’re read, to serials and non-fiction and poetry collections and myriad other collections bound within a cover or the four corners of a digital reading device.
I started thinking more about the nature of books when I started listening to a lot of audiobooks. Then there is this post that Book Riot linked to yesterday, which features “24 books to read in under an hour.” That’s right: AN HOUR. While I’m glad to see that the list is pretty meaty in terms of suggested material (Poe, Lovecraft, Gogol, Proulx, Garcia Marquez, etc.), many of these works don’t translate to me as books, so much as stories, or short stories, or novellas. And the infographic provides a handy picture of a watch for every “book,” with the number of pages and the number of minutes it supposedly takes to read. For example, you can read Kafka’s 27-page The Great Wall of China in 22 minutes, based on the average adult reading speed of 300 words per minute.
Last year, NPR featured 14 books you could read in the time it takes to watch the Superbowl. What is that, like three hours, give or take? The list includes The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein, and The Wasteland, which, last time I checked, was actually a poem. Kaetrin tweeted this post by Andrew Kortina, in which he talks about the way he gets around reading a non-fiction book someone recommends to him. He Googles for a Ted talk or NYT book review, figuring that he’s “cutting the fluff that exists because of an outdated economics,” namely a “minimum thickness requirement” that justifies a $20 price for a physical book. And I read Kortina’s piece alongside two recent articles from Nate Hoffelder, in which he references the change Amazon is making author payments in their KU program. Originally, Amazon paid authors based on the number of books that were borrowed and read, which appeared to favor shorter works, and they are now going to pay authors based on the number of pages that are read, which Hoffelder argues privileges longer works.
You can decide if you agree with the conclusions Hoffelder comes to about this change (or even the original payment scheme), but within KU, apparently some authors were deliberately writing shorter works and releasing them at a higher frequency to ostensibly increase the number of loans they got. One author Hoffelder quotes was apparently releasing a new “book” as often as every three days. Yes, that’s DAYS. Oh, and let’s not forget the new trend of YouTube channel to book, which follows the sensation of blog to book, both of which are variations on the ‘celebrity author’ phenomenon.
I use the term “phenomenon” intentionally, because works After, the One Direction story written entirely on Wattpad definitely seems like a phenomenon. So does the Book That Shall Not Be Named. And these works might be making a fortune, and generating another fortune in derivative works, but their popularity seems very specific and almost idiosyncratically specific. Like the proliferation of publishers bringing works of fan fiction into the commercial marketplace, sometimes as P2P. All of a sudden, stories become books, which allows them to be marketed and sold in easily recognizable ways.
I suspect that for most adult fiction readers, book has traditionally equated to a novel, or collection of essays, recipes, stories, or poems, or novellas – something substantial. Before I started reading Romance, I didn’t really think about books as much as I thought about novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, memoirs, plays, etc. With commercial fiction, though, it feels like everything is being packaged as a book these days, while simultaneously, what constitutes a book is changing in response to new ways stories can be packaged and sold.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing (some writers are always going to try to maximize their profit in the literary marketplace, while others are simply going to write what they want to write, regardless of how the market is evolving). I am not, however, convinced that Amazon is driving these changes, or that it’s all about changes to our patterns of concentration with new technologies. I think there are a lot of different factors at work, including the rise in self-publishing and the popularity of new storytelling formats (audiobooks, serials). And with these changes come a lot of opportunities for creative re-interpretation of something that could inspire more reading and more avid readers.
At the same time, I wonder about the future of the book, not in a digital v. paper sense, but in terms of how stories are told and commercialized, and how our rituals of reading may change. I know that since I shifted to digital and audiobooks, the way I read has changed. I can now read anywhere, and I can read for 5 or ten minutes at a time, which never used to be the case when I had to cart around, pull out, and find my place in a paper book. But I also find it incredibly frustrating when I buy a “book,” only to find that it’s really just a short story or even a novella. The market seems absolutely flooded with books, so many of which are relatively short works of fiction. It’s not that I begrudge authors using gimmicks and writing to trends – it’s more that I’m just not interested in most of the gimmicks and trends, and I find myself doing a lot of re-reading because I’m too lazy to take a chance on a book I may not enjoy, especially when I’m doing so much of my “reading” in the car, listening to an audiobook, or in snatches or minutes here and there. And I wonder how many authors are pushing themselves past their natural pace of writing because they feel pressure to deliver more work to the marketplace. Because as much as it kills me that Anne Bishop is only writing one Others book a year, when that book comes out, it’s an event for me, and I relish the time I spend reading it.
I guess what I’m really saying is that for all the ways in which I now have more opportunities to read – via different formats and modes – there are ways in which reading feels much more mundane to me, when it used to be a pleasure I anticipated and coveted. That’s why reading was my choice above so many other forms of entertainment. And now that reading is becoming enmeshed with other forms of entertainment, I feel like I’m now chasing the unique pleasures reading consistently used to deliver to me — the attention I had to pay to the words, the passages I would re-read and think about before moving on, the time I spent contemplating a particular plot point or, in the case of non-fiction, an argument or observation. Those are rich pleasures for me, and nothing delivers them like actual, literal reading.
There are a lot of readers who seem to be experiencing some kind of malaise, and I wonder whether it’s connected, at least in part, to the way the book is changing, diversifying, and becoming more linked with other forms of entertainment. For all the ways in which this is a good thing, is it diminishing some of the uniqueness, and some of the unique rituals, of books and reading?