I had an exchange on Twitter, with a colleague at the Centre for the Future of Museums (http://futureofmuseums.org), earlier today around the question of “what makes a book, the content or the container?” I expressed the opinion that, surely, it has always been the content, giving the example of The Odyssey. I could not fully explain my point in 140 characters, so will take the opportunity of doing so here.
I won’t rehearse the history of The Odyssey, which I am sure we all know, but the point is that, through history, it has existed in many formats or “containers,” some of which are shown above.
Now imagine a virtual reading circle consisting of people all around the world. They might include a scholar capable of reading the original papyri, but they might equally include a housewife in Argyll listening to Sir Ian McKellan’s audiobook version, a lawyer in Seattle reading it on a kindle, there might even be people in China, Japan, India, all enjoying it in their own languages. Now there’s a point. Apart from the scholar, they will all be reading translated versions and, among the English speakers, they may have several different translations, which will make more difference to their understanding than the nature of the format. But it would, in each case, be The Odyssey, and in our virtual circle we could all discuss the time where Odysseus drives a stake into the eye of the Cyclops, and the scene in which Circe turns the sailors into pigs. So yes, of course, it is the content that makes the book – the content of the same version, in whatever format, will be the same.
At the book launch for Undreamed Shores last week, someone asked me whether I was disappointed that it had not been published as a “proper book,” only for e-readers. I replied that what I cared about was that it was published and made available for readers. The format didn’t matter to me at all. In time, of course, I would like to think that it will be made available in other formats (and, by the way, if publishers read this, we are open to offers), but if it has content, and is available to readers, as far as I am concerned it is a proper book. If it’s good enough for Homer, it’s good enough for me.