Behold: a thing. Whatever else it is in this world, it is a thing. It may or may not have a name, it may or may not be identifiably unique, but it is an object, an instance of a class. When we talk about the future of the book (and, well, a lot of people are talking about the future of the book) I like to mention a word that I encountered a few years ago when I worked for a company in the litigation sector that made advanced search software: “immutability”.
My job was to be, boringly enough, this company’s expert in the PDF format, and I know a whole lot about PDF files. One thing I know is that PDFs are immutable, which is to say that they can’t be changed. You can share or save a PDF file, but you can’t edit or modify one. You could hack one, if you really wanted to, but doing so violates the basic principle of the PDF format: it is an unchangeable thing. This is why PDFs (and not, say, Microsoft Word documents) are the standard format for legal contracts.
Books, I believe, are immutable. Many entrepreneurs are doing (or planning to do) exciting things with the basic structure of the book — Richard Nash of Cursor and Hugh McGuire of BookOven come to mind. A recent display of a possible future issue of Sports Illustrated rendered in the emerging HTML5 standard shows similar ingenuity with the familiar structure of magazines. But an issue of a magazine, just like a book, must be immutable — it is a distinct thing, an object, an instance of a class. As we zoom through time and space with the next generation of browsers, will the boundaries of a text’s identity itself become fluid?
Or is this, maybe, a good thing? Are books immutable? I don’t know. In real life literature, books are mostly immutable. I am aware that when I read a Henry James text, I am reading the author’s later revision of the actual text that was earlier published. This offends the idea of a book as an immutable thing, and yet I can bend my concept of immutability enough to accommodate Henry James’s revised editions. A book is too complex a thing to always be 100% immutable, but it should aim to be close. Or should it? Can something be a book if it’s always growing? Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass grew — like leaves of grass, actually — through the course of the author’s life. Okay, but, then, why isn’t a blog a book? Why can’t you post comments in a book? Why should a book have to end, as long as its author is alive?
But how can we talk about books, and engage in the edifying practice of literary criticism, if books are changing before our eyes? It feels counter-intuitive — but then, we talked about Twin Peaks when it was on TV every Thursday night, even as David Lynch was plotting future episodes. Still, I like to think of books as immutable things, and I think many of you feel the same way. I wonder if this is a notion we’ll have to give up as electronic reading gradually becomes ubiquitous.
With these and other questions in mind, I’m looking forward to attending (and writing about, as always) all three days of next week’s Book Expo America in New York City. For various reasons, this year’s event appears to be a “scaled-down” Book Expo. There are no weekend days, and an aura of cost-cutting seems to be hanging over some of the party invitations. Well, I’ll be hitting the scene, including the #BEATweetup on Wednesday night (I enjoyed last year’s BEATweetup, as lame as the name sounds).
If you’re at BEA and you see me and my badge anywhere, please say hi! We can talk about the future of the book. And whether you’re attending the publishing convention or not, please feel free to post a comment about whether or not you think books are, and should be, immutable things.