In the modern digital era, what is a book? Is it a tangible item with pages enclosed in covers? Does it provide us with access to complete libraries on a portable device? Around 150 CE, the codex, or book as bound paper sheets, first appeared, and Papyrus scrolls and clay tablets came before it. Is that a book? Amaranth Borsuk examines the book’s past, present, and concept in this installment of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series. She connects book history, book arts, and electronic literature to show how form and content have interacted throughout the history of the book, broadening our understanding of an item we previously believed to be well-understood.
The book is still alive, despite numerous reports to the contrary (which have variously placed the blame on newspapers, television, and e-readers). Borsuk reminds us that despite nostalgic eulogies to the codex and its printed pages, the term “book” frequently applies to both medium and content. Additionally, the medium has been shown to be adaptable. Borsuk contends that we should keep the book’s lengthy history of transformations in mind rather than limiting our understanding of it to a single form. She demonstrates how the book’s physical form has always been the location of experimentation and play by examining the book as an object, content, idea, and interface. We should recognize the similarities between print and digital media rather than dividing them into opposites.