The Book of Theseus: When is a Book Not a Book?

The question, “What is a book?” seems deceptively simple. The answer is not only subtle and complex, but it has significant implications for the future of publishing.

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What is a book? It’s a question that seems so simple that it’s almost comical to ask. If you ask a three-year-old to show you a book, she can identify one. But while all stacks of paper with a certain type of binding may be a book, not all books are stacks of paper of a certain type of binding.

When we think back to some of the oldest books, what do we see? We see Gutenberg Bibles and the Book of Kells, both readily recognizable as books. Older books were scrolls, rather than bound, such as the Torah or the Diamond Sutra. The oldest book known is the Golden Orphism Book, dating back over 2500 years with more of a spiral bound binding. A little different, but still recognizable as a modern book.

Is my book still my book as an ebook?

What about stone tablets or hieroglyphics on walls? Are those books, or does a book need to be on parchment? If you argue that parchment is required, then ebooks and audiobooks don’t qualify at all!

If we don’t include paper or binding, what is a book? What about videos–visual representations of books. Graphic novels qualify as books to most people. Flipbooks are pages of images designed to be flipped quickly. Have some electronics flip those images at 30 frames per second and you have a video. Aren’t videos, including TV shows and movies, just visual books?

Is my book still my book . . . as a movie?

Encyclopedias began as large books of facts. They grew into sets and ultimately moved online. The modern encyclopedia is a hyperlinked set of webpages, be it Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica. (The former being a modern digital Tower of Babel.) Is a wiki a book? In theory you could print out every page and bind them into a set of physical books. Is that necessary for it to be a book, or is it an ebook, a type of book, in wiki form?

Do pages have to be numbered and in order? David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest doesn’t think they need to be. One imagines if it was published today electronically, each person might be given a book with a different page ordering.

This might feel like a jump. Print books to videos are usually linear, read start to finish. Wikis are not. Neither are reference books like dictionaries or the Physicians’ Desk Reference; no one reads those cover to cover. The innovative Choose Your Own Adventure books are clearly books, but also not read front to back. The page numbers are for indexing as you jump from one page to another in a non-linear order, much like a wiki. (Wiki pages all have numbers in the content management systems, they just aren’t typically displayed.)

Is a wiki a book?

If a wiki is a book, then what else? Workbooks, where you go through filling out forms and answering questions are certainly books; they get ISBN numbers, and we count them when talking about books an author has published. What about an ebook that’s a workbook. What if it’s an ebook workbook that I can fill out online? If that’s still a book, what about the software that I use to do my taxes? It’s a workbook, in that it has instructions and I fill out forms. It’s no longer linear, in that I jump around and have different paths depending on my answers to earlier questions. Is my tax software a book?

Consider the Brain Bump app, which takes the highlights of a book and lets the user access it one tip at a time in any order. (Are condensed books still books if they cut out some of the original book? How much can be removed and it is still a book?) Pocket advice books are just books of tips or quotes. Is that app not just an electronic version of it with multiple interfaces? Of course, it certainly looks more app than book, but is it the look and feel that matters?

By this point we’re entering philosophy, standing on the dock next to the Ship of Theseus. In the original question, every piece of the ship was replaced with an identical part: is it the same ship or a new one? Let’s ask a slightly different question: what if we took all those parts of the original ship, but reassembled into a new configuration, à la Legos®. Is the ship still his ship if reconfigured in a different shape? Is my book still my book as an ebook? As an audio book? As a condensed book? As a movie? As software? In other configurations?

Like the Greek philosophers who raised the original question there’s no definitive answer. We may never have one. But one thing is certain, a book is not just a set of printed pages or a digital equivalent. Those of us who make books need to think about what it really is and what exactly we are in the business of creating.