Why Bother Calling it a “Book?”

I was excited to come across Virginia Heffernan’s recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, “Click and Jane.”  In it she explores her young son’s refusal to call an online book a “book.”  Here’s a short excerpt:

In a hundred ways, we pretend that screen experiences are books — PowerBooks, notebooks, e-books — but even a child knows the difference. Reading books is an operation with paper. Playing games on the Web is something else entirely. I need to admit this to myself, too. I try to believe that reading online is reading-plus, with the text searchable, hyperlinked and accompanied by video, audio, photography and graphics. But maybe it’s just not reading at all. Just as screens aren’t books.

It’s a lovely reflection, really, and intriguing in that her 3-year-old son, Ben, is highly adept at differentiating paper books from Blackberries, Amazon Kindles, and other on-screen reading devices.

So much for the heady claims of the e-book denizens.  Young people, they say, will be the ones finally to embrace electronic reading with open arms — so much so that the distinction between printed and electronic books will eventually become irrelevant.  But with Ben the conventional wisdom seems to be incorrect.  Books aren’t just books, regardless of the platform.

Even more important, though, is the larger issue Heffernan’s article points to.  Why, after all, would someone want to call the type of on-screen reading she and Ben have been engaging in, book reading?  Clearly it’s a matter of wanting to capitalize on the cachet or cultural authority that bound printed books command.  But isn’t that precisely the problem here, too?

Gary Hall’s wonderful new tome, Digitize This Book! (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), which I cannot recommend highly enough, offers some helpful perspective on the matter.  Hall observes that “papercentrism” abounds in conversations about the future of books and reading.  By this he means printed books and the reading of paper objects more generally are the yardsticks against which all claims to the categories of “book” and “reading” get measured.  Anything digital inevitably comes up short.

What Hall suggests is that those who sing the praises of e-books are, in effect, undermining their cause.  In referring to these objects as such, they are constantly reaffirming the priority — even the pre-eminence — of their print-on-paper counterparts.  Ironically, “e-books” cannot escape their own papercentrism.

So let me end with a modest proposal.  Perhaps it’s time we cease referring to electronic reading devices as “e-books” and instead find some other, less papercentric, name.  Maybe then, when the technology no longer feels compelled to prove its worthiness in relation to paper, will digital reading achieve what’s been expected of it for so long.

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  1. [...] Ted Striphas asks why we insist on calling ebooks books: So let me end with a modest proposal. Perhaps it’s time we cease referring to electronic reading devices as “e-books” and instead find some other, less papercentric, name. Maybe then, when the technology no longer feels compelled to prove its worthiness in relation to paper, will digital reading achieve what’s been expected of it for so long. [...]

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