In all my years growing up surrounded by examples, I never once gave thought to precisely how the book was defined. It would have seemed like a silly question, really. It's only in relatively recent times I have come to the realisation that, to paraphrase a classic television commercial from my childhood, books ain't books. By accident of history, we have applied the same word to pop-up illustrations for children, lavish art and architecture hardcovers, compendiums of home cooking recipes, telephone directories, multi-volume encyclopaedias, historically significant works of literature and poetry, and fun and exciting works of entertainment and pop culture. What we call a ‘book’ has always been loosely inclusive. The only common element to these kinds of content is the object through which they’re distributed: paper, ink, thread, glue. It was a definition of convenience. After all, the magic of a book has never resided in its ink and paper (though they aided greatly in its portability). No one becomes a lifelong reader because of their love of offset printing. Each of the kinds of content listed above fulfilled a different need: some were served well by ink and paper, others perhaps not so much.
For centuries, though, the act of intellectually engaging with a book was intertwined with its sensory experience. This is at the heart of our society’s fetishisation of the book and its discomfort at the thought of the loss of print as a medium. But that doesn't happen with all books. Mostly, this deep engagement applies only to certain kinds of content: poetry and narrative or other work of some historical or cultural significance. These are books that are considered 'important' for whatever reason. By contrast, few mourn the loss of the printed telephone directory; even collectors seem ambivalent.
So, as more of our text and images drift between fixed paper and fluid screens, we’re forced to reconsider our definition. Books are no longer defined by their physicality. They are becoming unbound, a statement that’s already cliché, but still apt. And if the common elements of paper, ink, thread, and glue are taken away, we're no longer trying to define something that links Xavier Herbert's Poor Fellow, My Country with the CWA Cookbook and the 1978 Vancouver White Pages. This means we can think more clearly not only about what a book is, but about what it could be.
What do we want a book to be?
It's a question that applies to any kind of book, but for the moment, let's focus on fiction because that's what I like.
One, two, three, four.
Beat, two, three, four.
That’s how Willow Pattern starts. It's also the two paragraphs Angela Slatter wrote between midday and 12:04 on Monday 11 June. Over the next eleven hours, Angela made more than 160 revisions to that text before handing it over to editor, Keith Stevenson. She made her final change with just five minutes to spare before the nominal 11:00pm deadline. In between was a roller coaster of paragraphs added and language extracted, modified, subtracted, and refined. Eight words became 4,621 words.
I know this because Willow Pattern was written as part of if:book's experimental publishing project, the 24-Hour Book. I know this because the 24-Hour Book was written using an online publishing platform called Pressbooks. I know this because Pressbooks retains and timestamps the complete text of every saved version of Angela's story, stored in an online database. And I know this because I can access and review that data at will.
Timeframe aside, there's nothing especially unique about the mechanics of how we made Willow Pattern. All books go through more or less the same processes; that was part of the project's design. I don't mean to dismiss the remarkable creative force and skill required to write a story, refine it and submit it to an editor for further review; it's just that this sort of thing goes on all the time and some people - Angela and company included - are incredibly good at it. But in the typical publishing environment, so much of the work that goes into the creation of a book is lost: whether discarded or never recorded in the first place. What's unique about Willow Pattern is that I'm able to quote the statistics at all.
For many readers, a new book from their favourite author drops, fait accompli at regular intervals. The 24-Hour Book offered instead a glimpse into the reality of a book's world, the hard graft from writer and editor that pulls a story together and makes sense of it and the publishing process that brings the result to the world. What Pressbooks enabled us to do is record information that's usually invisible, even to a book's creators. As a result, Willow Pattern is not just the completed volume, it's also the entire publishing process, the nuts and bolts and the broad range of information that went into creating it.
It's a database.
In this sense, the print object or the electronic file becomes just one expression of Willow Pattern, one output from the database. The online text, with comments, becomes another. But what if we make full use of the information available to create new ways of conceptualising the book? Can we represent the story's progress visually? Can we reorder the content by its creation chronologically? Can we animate it in real time? Can we analyse the data to find new threads between stories within the book?
If the book has always been inclusive of different kinds of content, maybe we can also deepen its definition to include different forms of content.
Not everyone would consider this an advance. Many readers no doubt enjoy the magic show and wish to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. That's okay. It's also possible that all this extra information is not as valuable as we think. Maybe there's a reason it has never been traditionally recorded. Maybe it will reveal little. But an off-the-cuff 'maybe' is no reason not to try.
It's also important we avoid what I call the Moby Dick trap (example: 'This would add no value to something like Moby Dick, so it must be completely worthless to all books.'). Contrary to the assumption made all too often for books, the future for one is not the future for all. Even post object, books still ain't books.
So what do we want a book to be?
I don't know. I don’t think anyone does. I would argue that we won’t know what we want from books until we already have it. And by then we’ll be wondering what comes next anyway. For me, there’s a lot more to be gained from exploring possibilities than there is in definitively answering a question. After all, one of those pathways is a dead end. If we don't know what we're looking for, all the better. I’m often drawn to McCartney’s beautiful twist on a negative from Abbey Road: ‘All the money's gone, nowhere to go...but oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go!’
May the book remain frustratingly elusive.