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The Book: Defined

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the spy Polonius confronts Hamlet who is pacing the room with an open book and asks about what he's reading. Avoiding the question, Hamlet simply responds "words, words, words."

Sometimes it's convenient to think of books as merely objects made of paper and ink. In other instances, it's not the physical artifact that matters, but the deep cultural meaning of the text.

In Books that Changed the World, Robert Downs (2004, 30) asks

"What is a book? Should it be judged by size alone? Strictly defined, Paine's Common Sense, Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, Mackinder's Geographical Pivot of History, and the original statement of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity are no more than pamphlets... Voltaire is quoted as having said that the big books are never the ones to set a nation on fire: 'It is always the little books, packed with emotions, aflame with passion, that do the business.'"

introductionIn 1869 editor Edward Arber reintroduced Areopagitica; A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing, to the Parlament of England by John Milton to his readers as part of an English Reprints series. Arber's introduction encourages readers to think about the concept of "book".

Click the image on the right to read the Introduction.

Read the 1869 Introduction to John Milton's 1644 Areopagitica.
How do you "think" about books? How are the books of today and yesterday connected to our society?
Is a book more than simply "a book"?
How has the world changed books or books changed the world in the past 500+ plus years?

A Definition

A book is a published collection of connected pages or screens. It may be written, illustrated, printed, or contain blank sheets. Although it may be made of ink on paper fastened together in a binding, it may a digital representation of pages on a screen.

“We often think of literary texts as made out of language, or even out of ideas. But we can only encounter those texts through material objects. These objects vary according to time and place, and the kind of text concerned. They may be sheets of papyrus or rolls of parchment, paper codices or computer screens, but, in every case, to encounter a text means to encounter a material object.

Some people treat these material objects as simply the ‘vehicle’ that conveys the text to the reader, and so they think that nothing important is lost if a text is reproduced in a different format - for example in an anthology or on a website. So long as the words are the same, they say, that is what matters. But book historians tend to think of the material object of the book as an essential part of the text’s existence. For book historians, texts are not simply linguistic constructs; they are composites of linguistic and material elements. Considered like this, the material book is an integral part of the text, and something important is lost when the linguistic component of a text is detached from its material counterpart” (Levy & Mole, 2015, x).

In The Evolution of the Book, Kilgour (1998, 3-4)

"treats a 'book' as a storehouse of human knowledge intended for dissemination in the form of an artifact that is portable - or at least transportable - and that contains arrangements of signs that convey information. The information may comprise stories, myths, songs, and reality; the signs may be representative of human speech or graphic presentation of such things as maps, musical notes, or pictures...

Over the last five thousand years there have been four transformations of the 'book' in which each manifestation has differed from its predecessors in shape and structure. The successive, sometimes overlapping, forms were the clay tablet inscribed with a stylus (2500 B.C. - A.D. 100), the papyrus roll written on with brush or pen (2000 BC. - A.D. 700), the codex, originally inscribed with pen (A.D. 100), and the electronic book, currently in the process of innovation."

People who enjoy books have been given a wide range of names. A bibliophile is a skilled book collector or book lover who is knowledgable about a book's physical form such as editions and binding. However, not all people have a healthy connection with books. Bibliomania is an obsession for collecting or possessing books. Biblioholism is an addiction to books and bibliolatry is an excessive reverence for book.

Have some fun. Watch the Medieval Helpdesk at YouTube. Using a book seems obvious. However, there's more to know about books that how to turn the pages or read the words.

Child ReadingThe photo on the left shows children reading at the library. (Courtesy New York Public Library Digital Gallery).

From reading a course textbook for class to diving into a novel during your leisure time, you encounter books in all aspects of your life. You trust them and in some cases love them. But, what do you really know about books?

Adrian Johns (1998) suggests that books are much more than physical artifacts. The trust that you feel toward certain titles has been earned through centuries of development. Johns (1998, 6) states that "a reappraisal of print in the making can contribute to our historical understanding of the conditions of knowledge itself."

Read Chapter One of The Nature of the Book by Adrian Johns. Just read through page 28. The rest of the chapter is an overview of the book's contents. The book is available as an e-book through IUPUI. IUPUI students can view the book online.

The Importance of a Book

Books vary in value. A book can have sentimental value because your parents read it to you as a child. Or, it can have monetary value because libraries and collectors prize it for its rarity or uniqueness.

According to the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (ACRL, 2011),

"People value books either because of their contents or because of their physical characteristics. First editions of important literary or historical works and initial reports of scientific discoveries or inventions are prime examples of books that are important because of their contents. Illustrated books that give a new interpretation of a text or are the work of an esteemed artist are also valued. Books that were suppressed or censored may be both important and scarce, since few copies may have survived. Physical characteristics, such as a special binding; an early use of a new printing process; or an autograph, inscription, or marginal annotations of a famous person; may also contribute to a book’s importance and its market price."

To learn more about rare books, browse Your Old Books (2011) from the Rare Book and Manuscripts Section of ACRL.

Beyond Paper: Electronic Books

Throughout much of book history, the definition of a book has been associated with paper. However over the past century, the introduction of electronic materials has begun to redefine the book.

Read at least ONE of the following two articles:

Manley, Laura & Holley, Robert P. (2012). History of the ebook: the changing face of books. Technical Services Quarterly, 29(4), 292-311. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Gardiner, Eileen & Musto, Ronald G. (2013). The Electronic Book. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press. IUPUI students can view the article online.


Gardiner, Eileen & Musto, Ronald G. (2013). The Electronic Book. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press.

Kilgour, Frederick (1998). The Evolution of the Book. Oxford University Press. Available:

Levy, Michelle & Mole, Tom (eds.) (2015). The Broadview Reader in Book History. Broadview Press.

Manley, Laura & Holley, Robert P. (2012). History of the ebook: the changing face of books. Technical Services Quarterly, 29(4), 292-311.

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