What is a book anyway?

Posted by Jeff Markowitz on Tuesday, March 19, 2013
@Adamswomanback has me thinking today about the future of books (here's why).  I told her -

As a writer, I'm not in the business of selling books (even though it feels like that some days). I'm in the business of selling stories. It doesn't matter to me (or it shouldn't matter to me) whether someone prefers to access those stories in an ebook, or an audiobook, or as a paperback or hardcover. But as a reader, I need to hold a book in my hands.

I need to hold a book in my hands.  But which book?  Nearly forty years ago, I bought a paperback of Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins.  Recently I went shopping for another copy as a gift for a young friend.  Not surprisingly, forty years later, the paperback edition has a different cover. I felt like I was buying him a different book.  Perhaps it was just my compulsive personality kicking in, but I don't think so.  I think it reveals something about our connection to the physical book, to the thing itself.  I wanted my friend to discover the same book that I had discovered, to make the same connection.  I have a similar problem when I'm on shelfari.  I'll be adding a book to my bookshelf and shelfari will ask me to select the specific edition and book cover.  And if I accidentally post the wrong edition, I feel unsettled.  No, not that book.  I didn't read that book.    

I posted recently about the new paperback edition of A Minor Case of Murder.  I wrote -

Perhaps the most exciting moment for me as a writer came in November 2006 with the official release of A Minor Case of Murder.  It was not my first book, but it was the first that was traditionally published and it was a hardcover edition.  It was the first that was easy to find.  I could walk into my public library or my local Barnes & Noble and find the book sitting on a bookshelf.

But technology has changed how people read and the publishing industry has been racing to catch up.  (It is almost inconceivable now, but in 2006 when the hardcover edition was released, my publisher at that time had no interest in publishing an ebook edition).  So in 2011 I made arrangements with Crossroad Press to release an ebook edition of A Minor Case of Murder.  And then, in 2012, Crossroad Press added an audiobook edition.  And now, in 2013, it feels like things have come full circle with the release this week of a new paperback edition of A Minor Case of Murder.

I am thrilled with the new paperback edition.  My publisher did a wonderful job.  I like the paperback cover design more than the original book cover.  But I will admit to a moment of sadness, a moment of mourning, when the first copy of the paperback arrived in my mail, the hardcover edition now out-of-print, the thing itself a thing of the past.

I wrote about the future of books back in 2009.  Four years later, almost four years to the day, I feel pretty much the same as I did then -

I love books.  New books, like a brand-new automobile before the first ding, pristine, with that new car smell and that shiny new body, practically begging you to take it out for a spin.  And old books, especially old books, worn and tattered like a favorite pair of blue jeans.  My house overflows with books.  And I wonder sometimes, this attachment to books.  Because it's not really about the book is it, it's about the story, it's about the author's words, the author's voice.

I remind myself that the book is really nothing more than the story's delivery system.  Just an object (don't be a slave to objects my spiritual side warns).  And yet these books are so much more.  When I think about a favorite book, I don't just think about the story, I think about the actual book, it's look and feel.  And when I pick up my copy of On the Road, or Monkey or The Cyberiad, I remember where I was, I remember who I was, the first time I read it. 

I used to feel the same way about my LPs.  It was about the music, but it was also about the album itself, the cover art, the liner notes.  When LPs gave way to cassettes and then to CDs, I made the change slowly, reluctant to give up the emotional attachment to my albums.  Of course, these days, I couldn't imagine getting on an airplane without my iPod.   But I still keep the albums in boxes in my basement.  And I still own a turntable.

Perhaps one day I won't be able to imagine getting on an airplane without a Kindle.  After all, it is just another delivery system for stories.  I travel now with my music library.  It might be pretty cool to do the same thing with my books. 

There is a generation growing up with iPods who do not miss LPs, who can listen to music for hours on end, who do not miss getting up every twenty-two minutes to flip the record to side B.  And one day there will be a generation that will grow up with digital readers, who do not miss books, who carry their libraries in the palm of their hand, with instant access to a lifetime of great stories.

Perhaps one day I won't be able to imagine getting on an airplane without a Kindle.  But not yet.

And when I do, if I do, there's gonna be a lifetime of books sitting in boxes in my basement, next to my LPs.

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