Immutability: the Thingness of Books

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.

14 Responses

  1. Your view of the immutability
    Your view of the immutability of books as a “positive” attribute is probably an after-the-fact position. If you think of the earliest Western epics like The Iliad and the Odyssey, they were performed, recombined, revised, and reimagined based on the poet and individual recitation. I’m sure if you asked the poets of the day how they felt about seeing their poems “locked” into print, you would hear some trepidation.

    In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong charts the distrust of literacy (using script) by oral cultures, and I think it’s interesting to see how our technological changes align with earlier ones. How did people feel about the printing press? Were the scribes nervous? I have no idea, but I’m sure there was some anxiety about it.

    My point here is that the immutability of books isn’t immutable either, but it’s a conversation worth having.

  2. The “thingness” of books is
    The “thingness” of books is in the feelings they transmit, it’s all about feelings, don’t be rational when analyzing this subject matter, try to be more Jewish about it. The books of the Pentateuch were changed by different traditions over a period of centuries and before that the message and the feelings in those books was transmitted only through oral tradition.
    So, it’s not about digital or paper, it’s about feelings and message. Think about how the Jews wrote their most ancient sacred books and there you will find the answer about the “thingness” of books. And you will find that the amazing think about books is that they are not things, they are something deeper, they are part of being human.

  3. It’s great to re-visit one of
    It’s great to re-visit one of the pioneering great sites of the web.

    If the mutability of books is ever combined with totalitarian power, like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia or present-day North Korea I shudder to think about the very real potential for ending truth, art, beauty or anything else as we know it.

  4. What a beautiful
    What a beautiful conversation– a privilege to be listening in. But I do think Howard’s point is the most important point. I think of James Purdy here.

    I’m embarrassed to say, no, make that ashamed, that I’m only just now reading, and only halfway through at that, Ralph Nader’s Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! It’s unputdownable; in fact, I’d venture to say it’s why books as things were invented in the first place. Levi, I don’t remember you writing about it, but perhaps I missed it. Bill, you would love it! Despite the legitimate criticism that the “voices” of the “characters” are somewhat fungible with his own, he has written the strategic plan for curing almost everything that ails us. The man is like all of the founding fathers rolled into one.

    I repeat, the man is like all of the founding fathers rolled into one.

    You know how Chomsky or Zizek tell you what’s wrong but not how to fix it? Mr. Nader lays his whole self over the abyss and is the intellectual bridge from the sewer we’re slogging through to the garden. Like pickled pigs’ feet, he’s put his weighty brain in a bottle for us to use whenever we get hungry enough. I don’t know about you all, but I’m starving!

    Howard, please tell me you’ve read it and digested it. If not, please, please do so. This year’s crop of tomatoes will be so much riper and tastier for it. Promise.

  5. Reading is a hobby. I love to
    Reading is a hobby. I love to read books even as a child until now. It makes your imagination grow into action and what’s more? It helps a lot (informations, facts, answers, researches). So I was wondering, what would it be like if there’s no such thing as “books”. It’s a scary thought. Thank God, books are created for us to gain more knowledge. Oh, you wanna find more facts about books? Check it out at

  6. The topic of Ralph Nader
    The topic of Ralph Nader always opens up a fertile can of worms that would do any garden well. We need more worms, gardens and Naders — but Nader the politician has, ahem, had some flaws. I haven’t read his most recent book yet but have been planning to do so. I’d venture a guess that Nader agrees that books should be immutable. I can imagine, however, new forms that are more like a blog or a wicki than a book. It’s just that I do believe some things, once created, should be fixed — like a painting, a great photo or a book.

  7. Long live the book
    Long live the book !!

    Hypertext and the internet rewire brains and not necessarily for the better. The linear style and pace of reading is best for moving things into long term memory, an immutability in itself at least for a lifetime !

  8. Howard,
    You say more in an


    You say more in an “ahem” or even a glance than many men do in large tomes.

    Because you were an important player in electing a black man president in what is still a horribly racially pathological country, and because as a young man you interned with a master strategist and tactician, I suppose I should defer to your political judgements. But, I well remember our exchange about Obama’s hands-off policy in the Bloomberg-Thompson “race,” which you may recall I felt at the time made no sense given the threat to our Amercian democracy posed by Bloomberg (who now has his grubby mitts all over the NYC charter again with an eye toward, get this, RESTORING TERM-LIMITS, eradicating the role of Public Advocate, and weakening the Community Board structure so key to the public’s input, oversight and participation in our city’s politics) and I wonder.

    Do you think it’s possible, as I now do, that President Obama actually took a page out of Mr. Nader’s book by doing the obverse? Specifically, by not intervening as he has done in a potential Paterson race for governor, might he be wanting us to see for ourselves just how deformed and broken our city politics is? And might he believe or audaciously hope that if we see it with our own eyes and feel the pain, more like agony, of closed schools, libraries, dental clinics, homeless shelters and more horrors, at the same time billions of dollars in Wall Street bonuses are paid out, that our sense of fair-play might be so egregiously injured that we just might finally be roused to do something about it?

    Did you know, for instance, that the NYC Department of Education is laying off teachers at the same time the well-titled Chancellor Joel Klein has handed out a $5 million consulting contract to recruit new teachers?

  9. Levi, what a great idea for a
    Levi, what a great idea for a post! This immutability thing is fascinating and it is an important consideration. I would say, however, that the most interesting ideas regarding immutability are actually not happening in the literary world. They are happening in the art world – street art. Banksy and the other artists who create works on walls around the world and often see those works erased or modified by other artists within a matter of days or hours. They even see the works completely removed by thieves or collectors who know that the works are worth huge sums of money. The thieves want immutability. The artists couldn’t care less.

    I mention these artists because this issue of mutability is nothing to them. It is not even a consideration. They draw and they walk away. What happens to the picture later of of no importance whatsoever. They revel in this attitude and they are defining the future of how we look at art, whether it be visual art or literary.

    For these artists, I suspect that the book would simply be another cinderblock wall. Paint it. Admire it. And walk away. What happens next is just what happens next.

  10. Cool, Alessandro, thanks for
    Cool, Alessandro, thanks for bringing that up. Makes me think of the Buiddhist mandala sand painters, who work for weeks and then destroy their own work as soon as it’s done.

  11. Yes, that’s right. The
    Yes, that’s right. The mandala painters are a very good example. This is a good post. I’ll keep thinking about this.

  12. I think that its easy to
    I think that its easy to presume that a book cannot be changed, but I agree with the earlier comment: books have come to BE because of their mutability. In fact, the basic structure of every book I can think of has come from stories and expericences past down from father to son. The modern romance takes its que from classic literature like Romeo and Juliet, but the idea of love has been around since the beginning of man. So are books, in fact, not life written down, and cannot life be changed?
    So if you change a book, its not really the same book, but a diffrent outlook on one or many aspects of human nature. Every change that is made is another persons opinion, and has a right to be given.
    Just because Shakespeare thought Romeo and Juliet should be named so and deal with certian issues,does it mean that Romeo and Juliet shouldn’t be named…say, Maria and Tony, and struggle with race instead of a family feud, according to the imagination, life experience, values, and opinions of another.
    Stories that are changed are not the same story. We all have hearts, but we aren’t the same people. Thus, a story may be about star crossed lovers, but not both be Romeo and Juliet.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!