Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Idea of the Book

A recent review in Books & Culture entitled "The Idea of the Book" by Alan Jacobs examines The Oxford Companion to the Book and the idea of the book in general. The article overall is interesting both as a review and an essay exploring what is the nature of a/the book. However I'm not sure that Jacob's focus on defining what a book is succeeds in its endeavor. Agreed that the formats of reading these entities we understand as books are changing both in format and design. The Kindle features location number rather than page numbers. I read this article on my computer rather than the physical copy. Jacob calls for a re-definition of the term 'book' but then continues to use it after sort of complaining about it. Jacobs suggests that the form of the book is under attack. And while that might be true I think it is dangerous to think of these changes as attacks rather than changes to be reckoned with in an intelligent fashion.
Besides the discussion of the definition of the book the review of the Companion to the Book is quite good. Jacobs makes an excellent point that as a reference work this dual-volume lacks the flexibility that has brought the issue of books to the recent forefront of the discussion of content delivery. Jacobs discusses toward the end of the essay a desire for better inter-textual connections within the Companion which raises an interesting point/question. Jacob's understanding of how the printed work ought to work (cross-references, indexes, images, editorial changes, etc.) is based upon his experience with other digital reference works and in fact "'s hard not to see the digital version as constituting an improvement in many ways." Where 'improvement' is defined really as 1) lack of errors and 2) updatability. And for a reference work these are the defining bits that really matter. But it is the fixed nature of a work that I think speaks to Jacob's desire for a proper definition of the book. What is the benefit of being able to constantly and forever being able to fix or update or upgrade a piece of text? The logical conclusion of such an idea may well turn into a Borgesian work that strives to provide a complete map of the world. The physical book allows for the work to stop. For those words to be declared enough and complete, sent out into the world and allowed to flourish. This is the benefit of the book, the measured "sense of an ending" that provides a sense of history and knowing, of boundaries and lines, clear topography and elevations before everything is leveled by simply being information.

Here's an fairly interesting article on student apathy in the classroom.

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