By any other name

In ancient days, written texts were inscribed on long pieces of parchment that were then rolled up on either side. The reader could unroll a short segment at a time in order to expose a manageable amount of text. It was called a “scroll.”

Scrolls weren’t the most user-friendly device. They didn’t stack well for storage; they could be hard to manage, often requiring two hands to read; and they required a strict linear reading—skipping around just wasn’t practical. Along the way, someone eventually got the idea to fold the parchment instead of rolling it up. Now the text could be stored flat, and the reader could flip to a later place in the text easier than before. This was called a “codex.”

The codex went through several revisions. It was sometimes wrapped in animal skins to protect it; in some places, a single folded piece of parchment (with the folded edges to the outside) was replaced with several sheets stitched together, folded edges on the inside. Different mechanisms for holding the paper together and protecting it arose in different parts of the world. In time, the codex evolved into bound sheets of paper wrapped with a stiff cover that allowed it to be stored upright. This new format was given a new name: it was called a “book.”

The form of the book has persisted more or less unchanged for several hundred years now. The covers are generally softer, and the materials less precious, but Gutenberg would undoubtedly recognize the books of today as having more or less the same character as the books of his time. And well enough: the book is an object of technological invention that has functioned with only minimal advancement for centuries. Until recently, there was nothing broken, and therefore nothing to fix.

That age has ended. We are now ushering in a new age of books which exist without any physical presence at all, which can be transmitted across oceans in moments, in which annotations and criticisms can be shared in ways no one of the seventeenth century could ever have imagined. (Indeed, ways we of the twenty-first century are only beginning to understand.) And yet we still stubbornly refer to them as “books,” tucking but a sly vowel up front (“ebook”), as if we’re afraid to really admit how much has changed. This naming convention is no less absurd than if the codex was called a “folded scroll” or the scroll a “soft, thin, rolled tablet.” Dramatic changes in form require equally dramatic changes in terms.

The rose can go by any other name because the rose is unchanging; the book is not so constant. The ebook is an experiment, a study of possibilities, an idea in search of a name. We will know we have arrived at a new form when we learn what to call it.