What Makes a Book?

A book is a written or printed composition, usually of considerable length, that is designed for publication and distribution in a form readily accessible to literate persons. Such a work, whether it be a novel, poem or treatise, is usually divided into sections and chapters for assimilation and reference, and may contain an index, glossary and appendix of supplementary material. Books are a mainstay of all literate societies, and they have served their purposes for millennia.

Books are easily taken for granted—we think we know what we mean when we say “book” or “a book,” but there’s more to it than that. As the book continues to shift its cultural profile and new publishing business models emerge, it is an opportune moment to consider the qualities that signal its presence and the ways in which these attributes shape our experiences of reading, writing and making.

Historically, the concept of what constitutes a book has varied widely, from tortoise shells and deer bones to lengthy scrolls in antiquity, concertina codices in central America, bamboo and silk books in Asia and palm leaf manuscripts in Africa. The evolution of the book has been a constant struggle for balance between the requirements for portability and permanence of a written work, and for the division of work into manageable units called books.

For this exhibition, we have chosen objects that are not conventionally considered books in the sense of printed texts on paper pages bound together, but rather objects that signal “bookness” through their materials and design: a temple column with an inscription carved into it, a scrapbook or photo album, a book of mathematical tables, a set of chess pieces, a cut-out doll, a crossword puzzle or a satirical cartoon. We have also included books in a wide variety of other media: audiobooks, comics, video games and digital publications.

Each of these objects prompts questions about what makes a book and where the boundaries between books and other types of text are drawn. Some of these objects are meant to jog our memory of the history of the book, while others encourage us to examine our own assumptions about what books can be.