There’s a vigorous debate going on on the SHARP listserv about the definition of a book. The followers of the listserv are mostly academic historians of the book, so unsurprisingly they tend to have a view of the book which is pretty much tied to its physical manifestation. The discussion all started when Beth Luey queried whether an audiobook without any print edition qualified as part of “print culture”. I would think that the answer there would have to be “No”, but most of the discussion has broadened out into just what the definition of a book might be. Even without a print version this audiobook must surely still be a book. Just as a Kindle original is also a “book”. I think the confusion (if it’s not really me who’s confused) resides in the two main meanings of “book” — the literal and the metaphorical — the meaning conveyed by “That’s a beautiful book you are holding” as against “War and Peace is a beautiful book”. We use the word with both meanings, and Jeffrey Deaver’s audiobook certainly falls within the second sense, while one might mount an argument that the physical manifestation of it on the tape or CD on which its stored also counts under the literal definition. Here’s a link to the New York Times article which prompted her query.

One respondent, Wayne Gisslen, suggested “Suppose I cut the binding from a codex ‘book,’ so that I have loose pages. Is it still a book? Suppose I then place the pages (still retaining their page numbers, of course) in random order. Is it still a book? Suppose I distribute the loose pages all around my building. Is it still a book? If not, at what point in the process did it stop being a book, and why? Suppose I copied the book, one letter at a time, onto thousands of tiny pieces of paper and dropped them from an airplane. Is it still a book?” Maybe not literally a book, but surely none-the-less each piece of paper littering the continent would still remain essentially a part of a book, wouldn’t it? Picking one piece up in Riverside Park I might not recognize it as one letter from a book, but that’d be what it would be. So the notion of book, while perhaps not accessible to me or anyone else finding a bit of it, would still adhere to each piece. The thing did stop being part of print culture however at the point where Mr Gisslen copies it letter by letter onto bits of paper. IMGP2702Different story if he’d opted to cut up the pages into individual letters, two-sided. The loose pages spread all around his building, while perhaps now only metaphorically a book, are still part of print culture, as is that crumpled sheet of newsprint being chewed on by a cow lounging in the afternoon shade on a Madurai street — and I guess it will retain its place in print culture until fully digested.


One of the byproducts of the discussion has been information about the word for book in different languages. Here are a few examples.

Abenaki word for birchbark map, “awikhigan,” eventually came also to mean “book,”

Arabic calls book “kitab” which derives from a root associated with “writing.”

Hebrew calls book “sefer” which comes from a root associated with both “telling” and “counting.”

In Estonian, a Finno-Ugric language, the word currently used for ‘book’ is “raamat”, derived – through Russian – from Greek “grámmata” (plural of “grámma”).

The related language Finnish has borrowed the same word, but Finnish “Raamattu” means now ‘Bible’ (‘book’ being “kirja” in Finnish, but in the early modern period also “raamattu” was used).

The non-related (Indo-European) but neighbouring language Latvian has also borrowed the word, “grāmata”, to designate a ‘book’.

In early modern Estonian both “kiri”, derived from a root (now) meaning ‘writing’, and “raamat” could mean anything written or printed on paper (from a letter on a sheet of paper to a bound codex).

See also Book, This is my book.