Monday, 11 June 2012

What makes a book - the content or the format?

I had an exchange on Twitter, with a colleague at the Centre for the Future of Museums (, 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.


  1. I agree, Mark. A book is about words. Words can appear on a stone tablet, loose papyri leaf/leaves, a paper printed page, and now on a kindle/reader device.

    I love holding a printed book, but it doesn't stop my enjoyment of using my kindle. The words are there!

    1. Like you, I have a kindle, but I also have tons (probably literally) of printed books. I don't imagine that printed books will disappear in our lifetimes, but perhaps they will eventually, just as illuminated books have. Katie Ward, in the final chapter of her wonderful "Girl Reading," tries to imagine the reading experience as it might be in 2060 - I doubt that her futuristic vision will be realised quite as soon as that, but who knows?

  2. I picked up a paperback whodunit in our local charity shop. It was by a favourite author (but I won't mention who, or the title).

    The formatting was simply appalling. First line indents were missed here and there, scene chagnes simply ran on from the previous paragrpah, without the obligatory blank line. It was shocking.

    The tale, however, was superrb, the mystery brilliantly constructed and the denouement right where it should be on the last three pages.

    I know this is slightly oblique to your post, Mark, but it amounts to the same thing. I wouldn't have cared if that tale had been handwritten on a set of beer mats, or put up as a plain text, 100,000 word blog post. It was the content that mattered. Everything else was at worst an irritation.

    And you know the wonderful thing about e-books? You can go back in and correct the irritation.

    1. That's interesting, since people keep complaining about the formatting of e-books and, especially, self-published books, but this, presumably, was produced by a "mainstream" publisher? But yes, it is much easier to correct errors in e-books once they are pointed out - almost a return to the 19th century situation, when first editions frequently sold out on day 1 and such errors, often glaring, were corrected in subsequent editions.