What is a Book?

What is a BookThis post was spurred by Mark S. He sent me a link on a social networking site regarding Matthew Butterick, who allegedly has developed a new format for digital books. I had a look at the link, and Mark and I entered into a brief discourse evaluating whether or not Mr. Butterick has really improved digital books, or if he had really developed anything at all.

Consider a book. Ignore the adjective form (bookworm) and the verb form (booking passage). Focus on the noun form:

  1. A set of written, printed, or blank pages fastened along one side and encased between protective covers.
  2. An e-book or other electronic resource structured like a book.
  3. A printed or written literary work.

Let’s face it, when I say “book” your brain conjures up the image in definition number 1. That image may fade or modify over time. The image, and thus understanding of the term, is based on experience. In another fifteen years or so most people may visualize a Kindle or tablet when they hear the term, “book”. For the foreseeable and I think even distant future, “book” will fall into the third definition, with the implied inclusion of either the first or second definitions.

The third definition begs some questions. Is a website a book? Is a blog a book? Is your Facebook page a book? Are all your Tweets a book? I don’t know about you, but to me the answer to all of these is no. I could certainly extract information from a website or blog or a Facebook page, or my Tweets, and create a book. But there would need to be some form of extraction and organization. I will concede that a website, webpage, or blog can be considered a written literary work. But there is a singularly distinctive quality to a physical book that is carefully emulated in an e-book. As such, this unique quality must be considered one of the defining characteristics. Why did e-book developers isolate and emulate this quality if it wasn’t important? What that quality is I will express shortly.

All websites are littered with some form of advertising. I accept that a book can have some advertising. All websites have images, and images can be in a book. However, many websites have videos and audio, and A/V does not fall into the third definition. Video is not printed or written. So clearly a book might be represented on a website or webpage, but a website or webpage many not be representable in a book. Thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs.

Definition 1 says that a book is written, and it implies it is written or printed on pages. Definition 2 allows that written material to be displayed on a digital page, a virtual page. I suggest that both of these ‘pages’ have one important common quality, and several minor commonalities. A physical book and an e-book are printed / displayed on a page that can be viewed in a glance in its entirety. This is particularly important to speed readers, skimmers, or those looking for non-indexed information.

Websites, blogs, social networks, et al. do not employ this function. They have the advantage of scroll bars that allow the information to flow on indefinitely. But in that advantage, they lose the advantage of being viewed in a glance.

A book requires a single action; turn the page. This has been carefully emulated in e-books. Printed books have no other functions. Open it, view each page at a glance, turn the pages, and then close the book. E-books have tried hard to emulate these functions. Both my Kindle and my Kindle Fire have cases that make them feel very much like a book when I ‘open’ them. Pages can be viewed at a glance, and pages can be flipped or turned, either by a single button (often placed just about where you would grab a page on a paper book) or with a finger flick across the screen.

That said, e-books do have something that paper books don’t and websites do; hyperlinks; hypertext markup. In many ways that does make an e-book superior to a paper book. Go to the table of contents, click chapter 10, and you are at chapter 10. No flipping and trying to quickly read and catch page numbers. Additionally, e-books can often adjust font sizes. Page numbers become meaningless, but when your eyes go bad larger print is a blessing.

These advantages, hypertext markup and adjustable fonts, are parts of websites, blogs, social networks, and even Tweets. For the Internet to exist two things were required; domain space structure, and hypertext markup. Originally hypertext markup was created with a simple computer language called HTML – Hyper Text Markup Language. Since those early days a host of related languages have been developed. XHTML, XTML, CSS, PEARL, PHP, JAVA, and on and on. Some have advantages, some simply approach the same issues in a different way. More advanced languages allow the author to reach into the processor of the server or the user’s computer, allowing the language to execute program functions; to do math or other programmable routines. That is something that a book cannot do. But I digress.

Let’s get back to the original topic. What is a book, and has Mr. Butterick found a way to improve digital books? He touts a system he calls Pollen, and states that a book is a program. In the sense that a book (see definitions 1, 2, and 3) is a series of written language in an organized pattern used to display information, yes, a book is a program. So let’s look at Mr. Butterick’s construction.

Here (http://mbutterick.github.io/pollen/doc/index.html) you can view Mr. Butterick’s discourse on Pollen, which is, as he points out, a markup language. Okay, so we have a new version of old HTML we can add to the list. I will not judge whether it is better or not. Behind Pollen is a programming language called Racket. Like markup languages, there are a ton of programming languages, some difficult, some easy. Some robust, some not-so-much. I think the markup and programming languages are irrelevant. The reader does not use HTML or Pollen or Racket – they view / read the result of its use.

Here (http://practicaltypography.com/) you can view the “book” (I use the quotes sarcastically) Mr. Butterick published using Pollen / Racket. What I notice right off is that I have to grab my mouse and start using the scroll bar. I thought it was a book, where I could view the page at a glance if I wanted to do a quick read. Not so here. This isn’t a book, it’s a website, a webpage.

I then observed that I had to read the instructions on how to read the “book”. Page turners and Go To markers are invisible – perhaps by choice, but worse if by design. Hyperlinks are also invisible until your roll your mouse over them. You aren’t going to retrain the entire world on how to use a webpage, and you most certainly are not going to retrain the entire world on how to use a book. E-book manufactures figured that out. Go with the flow the people know.

I then observed that there was not a global search function. I include that function on my blog. Most websites include it. Perhaps he chose to not program it into his book. But if it turns out to be an unavailable function of Pollen / Racket, it then becomes a demerit. Printed books do not have global searches, but e-books do.

To conclude, Mr. Butterick asks, “Is it better than the last digital book you encountered?” My answer is a big, NO IT ISN’T. It lacks the primary distinction and function of a printed or e-ink translated book; the ability to view a page at a glance. It tries to emulate some of the intuitive quality of page turning, but presents itself so much like a website that the user doesn’t think of using it in that fashion. It makes for a mediocre website / webpage at best. And, quite frankly, I didn’t see anything that couldn’t be done with existing language technologies. In fact, a quick flip through his “book” displayed nothing that couldn’t be done in old HTML.

Keep on trying Mr. Buttrick.

Sifu Keith Mosher

About Sifu Keith Mosher

My new book, "Astro Boy, Sensei, and Me" is available now, as is my Sci-Fi joy ride, "On a Sphere's Edge". I have a Bachelor of Media Arts degree from USC. I have been an Audio Producer / Engineer, a Law Office Manager, and I am currently an Author and a Martial Arts Instructor.
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