Debating the Book

[On Thursday 8 October I’m taking part in a public debate on the Future of the Book at the University of Leeds, part of the White Rose Consortium’s Debating the Book festival. My fellow debaters (debatees?) are the University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton, Stella Butler; Professor Brian Cummings (York); the CEO of Waterstones, James Daunt; the novelist, Linda Grant; Dr Bridgette Wessels (Sheffield), and we will be chaired by Melvyn Bragg. Further details about the debate are here and about the festival here. We’ve been asked to give short opening statements. Mine’s below.]

One of the remarkable things about the book is how readily ‘book’ now describes something without paper and ink. We had books before the invention of printing, so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that we now have digital books. There is lots to say about the differences between print and digital books: about the way the form of one has been incorporated into the other, for instance; or the way digital properties make us look again at print. But what interests me is what they have in common. When we’re no longer talking about paper and ink, what is a book?

For me, this is about wholes. The book describes something bounded, something complete, and this has a peculiar appeal in a digital world where everything is connected.

The book establishes wholeness in two different ways. Firstly, the page sets out edges, marking off where the text stops and the rest of the world begins. More importantly, the sequence of pages, one after the other, establishes temporal boundaries – a start and an end – as well as a sense of direction. It is this sequence of pages that makes a book a book. You just have to look at how wary ebooks have been to leave behind the linearity of the codex and embrace multi-dimensional hypertextuality. Although in practice not all books are read cover-to-cover, what we tend to think of as a book starts on page one and ends when there is no more to read.

This, I think, is important, as it means that the form of the book, whether paper and ink or bits and bytes, is well-suited to structuring narrative. Narrative, the telling of stories, is fundamental to the way in which we understand ourselves and the world we live in. I don’t mean that we make the world up, but that narratives are how we put things in order, establish chains of cause and effect, and, crucially know where to start and to end. Narratives break the chaos of the world into chunks that have some sort of integrity and can be retold again and again.

The thing is, narratives can be tricky. Where does a story really start? And how do we know it’s finished? I don’t know how well you remember Alice in Wonderland, but there is a bit where the Red King, sitting in judgement over the Knave of Hearts, asks the White Rabbit to read a poem in evidence against him:

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked.
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

The book incarnates narrative. It gives it a body. Not only does it make clear beginnings and endings, you also always know much there is to go. And, because you turn the pages, you are the engine that drives the story on. Good books – in print or digital – move us. But we, crucially, also move through them.