What do Books do?

What you read defines you. What’s on your bookshelves is a signal to houseguests, potential partners, friends or casual acquaintances who’ve dropped in for tea. A library, however small, is an act of vanity. We display books, treasure them and show them off to indicate how far we’ve come as adults.

I do anyway. Don’t invite me round for dinner, unless you want your shelves examined.

But why do we read? What do we want books for? What might that tell us about writing for digital?

Here’s a thought to start with. An obvious one, but let’s agree to begin somewhere.

We read to escape. Books feed our imagination, nourishing the parts of ourselves that ask for something else, for a more interesting life. Books show us worlds, and people we can never be. Even if those people are our own age, or live in the same city we do, the fact of their being written about lends them an authority we don’t have. We ask that their stories have a point, and go somewhere, but really; the fact of their existence is enough.

Unread books, too, exist. Someone much smarter than me said that a book isn’t a book until it is read, and while there’s some truth in that (a kind of pre-emptive reification1 of the written word), it is true that books contain the promise of existence too. Someone wrote this thing that’s sitting on your shelf with a paper bookmark jutting out of the first chapter. Someone imagined a life and a world and a plot. You’ll get around to reading about it someday. If you don’t, then your children will.

If books feed the imagination, then is digital writing any different? Should we approach creating a digital text any differently than a conventional novel? Do we need to?

Well, it’s probably no surprise that we think you should. Digital books—when considered as a book—are very different animals to their printed counterparts. They don’t really exist, for a start. They’re icons on your tablet, or a filename in an eReader. Maybe an App that’s in both places. Regardless, they don’t possess the same sort of gravity that a book does. That book you have with the bookmark poking out of the pages? You’re going to get around to finishing it, one day. It sits there and reminds you, every time you dust the shelf, or look for its neighbour. Its digital cousin doesn’t make the same claim on your conscience. It can sit there for years and not be noticed. Frankly, that you only paid pennies for it too, is not going to drag you back to its pages either. If the digital book doesn’t exist, aside from some disk space and an icon, then what’s the offer it makes? What drives your reader to it?

Here’s a partial answer.

It isn’t the desire to finish it.

  1. being the act of bringing something into being. Making an abstraction concrete. Blame Nick Harkaway, I was listening to the audiobook of “The Gone-Away World” when I was writing this section.