Musings on What We Mean By “Book”


Does this child with a book remind you of any other images of a reading child?

I’ve read several articles recently that have me musing on what we mean by “book,” and why our books are configured as they are.

Tablets and scrolling are not new things in terms of recording human words. Narratives carved in stone of everything from legal texts to grocery lists have survived millenia. At one time, animal skins were sewn together into long sheets on which columns of text were written, and then rolled up in a scroll. (Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on a continuous sheet of paper!).

The book, as most of us knew it growing up developed when those skins or sheets of papyrus were folded and bound into what technically is called a “codex.” This also helps account for why books exist in the rectangular shape they do. A mathematician, Raul Rosarivo studied Renaissance books and came up with a Golden Number of page construction which is 1.5 or a ratio of 2:3 for width:length. “Why are Books That Shape?” goes into all of this at greater length. As books transitioned from large objects read on a table to handheld objects,  the size and shape of books conformed well to the human hand. The article also observes that the ideal number of characters on a line is 66 (and a range of 45-75), which is why magazine formats and some books use columns.

The article also makes the fascinating observation that the transition to handheld e-book devices didn’t change all this. Early Kindles conformed to this “golden number” in its shape. It would be interesting to study our adjustments of font size to see how close they come to the 66 character ideal.

What e-readers did in our time is open the door to the idea that a “book” is something different from the format in which it comes to us. It may be bound, electronic, or audible, and sometimes electronic text and audible rendering may be merged. Another recent article, “Who Has Time to Read? And Where? And on What?” makes the point that our idea of “book” is different than the physical means of engaging an author’s work. I’ve seen some impressive, as well as humorous arguments that listening to audiobooks may even be a superior experience to reading books.

Perhaps there is an analogy with recorded music, for which there are Edison cylinders, 78’s, 45’s, and 33 long play albums, 8-track tapes, cassettes, CD’s, and digital downloads. All of these can be termed “albums” even though the form is different. [By the way, as a lover of vinyl, I remember recordings of books, plays of Shakespeare, etc. on vinyl. Audiobooks have been around for awhile!]

So this begs the question of how we define “book”. offers these two primary definitions:

  1. a handwritten or printed work of fiction or nonfiction, usually on sheets of paper fastened or bound together within covers.
  2. a work of fiction or nonfiction in an electronic format:

The traditional definition here and in several other dictionaries understands book as “codex.” But with the inclusion of electronic formats, the definition appears to be becoming more fluid. I wonder if the day is coming when a more fluid definition of book might exists along the lines of “an authored work of fiction or nonfiction, consisting of words and images conveyed one or more forms of media including printed and bound form, electronic, audio, or audio-visual formats.”

It seems we are a season where these thrive side by side, reflecting different lifestyles and preferences of readers and listeners of books. Just as there is a revival of vinyl and those who prefer its sound, so there are some who still love the printed and bound book, and love to see them on physical shelves. That is one type of aesthetic, which includes the joys of wandering bookstores, booksales, and libraries. For others, e-books fit a lifestyle on the go, a space-conscious living situation, or just the idea of “living lightly.” A third aesthetic may value the spoken word, whether spoken, or even read aloud, perhaps communally, or perhaps during one’s commute or workout in the gym.

The question remains, which one article asks, “who has time to read?” That’s one for another post. My book is waiting…


A Usability Test for Books?

Just read a great blog by Chris Hilton on Reading in BedHe focuses on something that is almost never discussed in book reviews–the usability of a book. His post focuses on a problem he runs into when reading in bed–that some books are so printed and bound that the inner margin is so narrow that the full text can only be read with two hands holding the book wide open. And for some books, this destroys their binding, which means you might as well throw it away after reading. I fully sympathize.

This is one of the reasons I like reading an eReader at bed time. I can set the text big enough that I can even read without glasses, it can be held in one hand, and it shuts itself off if I fall asleep and is easily set on my night table.

But Hilton has a point that there is a beauty in well-made books that is part of the reading pleasure which is one of the reason I still like physical books. Here are my own thoughts on what makes for a beautifully made physical book, in addition to Mr. Hilton’s great insight about inner margins:

1. Wide margins: These leave room for marginalia–those notes that reflect the dialogue between author and reader. Not everyone likes to do that but a book without margins makes this difficult.

2. Covers: While we don’t judge books by their covers, a great cover that fits the book enhances the experience. I’m reading a book on holy war with a cover that shows an ancient sword against a dark red background. Totally fits!

3. Print size and line spacing: Some of this depends on the kind of font used–some are more readable than others but obviously larger point sizes and line spacing make reading easier than tiny print and a page full of text that it seems to take forever to read.

4. Binding: A book that lies easily in your hand and stays open by itself is idea. This usually implies a better quality hardbound book.

5. Paper: Acid free paper that falls and conforms easily to the pages beneath is best. It is neither fragile nor rigid.

6. Size and weight: This is probably a trade-off with some of the other factors, particularly numbers 1 and 3. Generally, the more comfortably a book can be held and carried, the more likely it is to be read with pleasure.

7. Illustrations and graphics: Some books are remembered for their illustrations as much as for their text. I think of books like Thurber’s collections of stories with his line drawings, or the illustrations in Winnie the Pooh.

I’ve mentioned these in another context, but the hardbound Library of America series typify many of these qualities and even include their own book ribbons.

What am I missing? What makes a physical book usable and a delight to hold and read for you?