A book is a physical object. It is printed on paper and has a cover. It has a publisher who undertakes to have it printed and bound (and with any luck, marketed and publicized). This, I would contend, it what most authors have in mind when they sit down to write a book. It isn’t just “content,” of which you can find far too much on the internet. It is an object of pride that you can slot onto your shelf with a great sense of personal achievement. It has taken a lot of work, and headaches, to get to this point. Several months or even years of your life. An idea that can’t be addressed in a couple dozen pages. A book is born!
Publishers are more and more pushing the ebook, however. The ebook is not a book in the same sense as a printed object is. In some sense it may be more durable. It’s certainly easier to get quickly. But how do you get excited over writing an ebook? Whenever I’m writing a book, there’s clearly an object in mind, not a cloud of electrons. Ebooks have their place, but as people start talking about a post-literate future I start seeing visions of my own tombstone. It gives me a strange kind of comfort to know that all of my books so far reside in the Library of Congress. Some university libraries even buy copies. Would a carpenter take pride in an electronic table she built? Can you set your book on it? If you don’t carve your “Kilroy was here” in stone, how will you ever prove it?
As handy as ebooks are, nothing matches the sensation of walking into a room full of books. The sense of rapture is palpable. Such rooms are monuments to our culture. A screen with metaphorical tons of content may be a tribute to technology, but is any of it real without ink connecting with paper? There’s nothing wrong with “content;” I produce some every day. The thought process is different from book writing, however; just like the process of writing poetry differs yet again. The publisher always looks at the bottom line. (And I don’t mean the last line of a poem.) And to keep “books” profitable the conversion to “content” seems attractive. It breaks down, however, if writers no longer think in terms of books. The book has a storied history and a long future, if we keep in mind that it’s something far more refined than mere content.