Dan Gillmor

What is a book? Discuss.

In the news sphere, there can be endless arguments over whether this person or that person is a journalist. It’s a pointless conversation, because the real question is: What is journalism? Edge cases are easy. The New York Times is journalism. The “BlahBlahBlog” isn’t. But it gets blurry fast, and that’s where the conversation gets interesting.

We’re starting to have the same discussion in the book world. Again, the edge cases are easy. Here’s a book:

Charlie Stross’ novel comes in print — bound pages — and in several ebook formats. It’s a book, period.

Not all books in the traditional realm are based on text, of course, though I’m hard-pressed to name a book that doesn’t include at least some text. Graphic novels and the heavy oversized volumes of photography we put on our coffee tables are just as much books as Charlie’s novel or Moby Dick. But just as a collection of blog posts isn’t a book, the latest installment in some comic series isn’t either (though we do call them comic books).

This is also a collection of bound pages. It’s not a book, at least not in the context I want to use here:

The little notebooks I carry around, and into which I write notes of various kinds based on ideas and conversations, isn’t meant to be seen by others. It doesn’t start here and end there. It’s random. Book? Nope.

What about this volume, called Between Page and Screen:

Its authors call it “an augmented reality book of poems.” Here’s a video of how it works. Come back when you’ve watched it.

Is this really a book? Or is it something else, even if part of it fits between two covers?

Now check out “The Elements” on the iPad:

I love it. Is it a book? Probably, but I’m not sure what I’d say if I had to give a yes or no answer.

Welcome to the blurry world of tomorrow’s books — blurry in precisely the same way that some other media forms have become. It’s all about digital technology, of course, which subsumes everything that existed before, and then extends it into new realms. things bleed into each other: The New York Times posts excellently produced video online, and the BBC publishes text-based articles.

The experimentation in book publishing today is great to see. People are using technology to push out the boundaries. At some point, though, what they create no longer seems to fit into any category with historical antecedents.

I’ve asked any number of people in recent months what a book is. The answers have ranged about as widely as you’d expect. Several zeroed in on a fairly simple but powerful notion: a book starts here, holds your attention for a non-trivial period of time, and ends there. Then again, so does a walk in the woods, or a film.

I suspect a book will be anything we decide to call one. Words take on new meanings. When was the last time you dialed a phone number by turning a little wheel on a landline with a wire connected to a wall plug? But you knew what I meant by dialing.

I worry that our shrinking attention spans will make traditional reading less and less relevant. But, ever optimistic, I’ll predict that books — whatever that means — do have a future, because we need them.