What Defines a Book?

The book is a familiar object of the human experience: it’s a receptacle for text, its form and meaning shaped over time by different cultures. Its history has ranged from tortoise shells and deer bones, to lengthy scrolls in the ancient world, concertina codices in Central America, bamboo and silk books in East Asia and palm leaf manuscripts in South Asia.

Whether handwritten or printed, written on papyrus, parchment or vellum, paper or cloth, it is an object of ritual use and veneration. It has become an emblem of cultural ascendancy, allowing its contents to influence ideas and values across the globe. Yet the definition of what defines a book is in constant flux, a question of which the exhibition seeks to explore through a series of material interrogations and changing valorizations.

There are many kinds of books, and they are categorized in a variety of ways: one can separate them by content (fiction or non-fiction), form (poetry, novels, etc.) and literary genre (science fiction, romance, drama, etc). The category of’must-read’ books can also be broken down by literary quality or fame: those that are considered essential to the development of literature, the arts and humanity.

But perhaps the most important distinction is in their material embodiment. Whether bound in leather, silk or hard plastic, the qualities that signal “bookness” are often taken for granted: size, shape, pages and binding. Nevertheless, these are fundamental to the book’s power and its ability to convey its textual meaning.

Books are also characterized by their social and cultural contexts, how they are used, reinterpreted, manipulated and revalued by readers and their creators. For example, Virginia Commonwealth University scholar James Stauffer cites a book by sentimental poet Felicia Hemans in which a woman adapted lines of her poetry to create a memorial to her seven-year-old daughter who had died: “Mary, Mary, Mary, you’ve never been so dear.”

Books have long been regarded as the medium through which we express our most intimate thoughts and feelings, from personal journals to philosophical diaries. But what happens when we take the material characteristics of books and expand them into other forms, such as digital texts or works of art? How do these new forms redefine the book, and what does that mean for its meaning?