May 17, 2003

What is a book?

Today and tomorrow in Maastricht, I'm taking part in a very interesting discussion that asks "What Is A Book?" Particpants range from publishers to porn stars, comic book writers to philosophers. Jan Van Eyck has a big design wing, so all this has a very practical question: why do all these people keep wanting us to make their work into a book?

Of course, we've spent a lot of time in the past generation inquiring into the nature of reading. I wonder whether it's been worth it, whether we'd be better off applying all that talent to something that feeds a lot of people or keeps them warm at night.

But books do that too, of course. One thing books offer us is the promise of return; we can come back when we want. Not, of course, to the same experience -- time's river sees to that -- but the book will still be there. And a book stays the same, more or less; we can know Dickens, say, in a way we can't really know Sarah Bernhardt or Isadora Duncan.