books-contentOn Digital Book World, senior editor Daniel Berkowitz argues that “books cannot become mere content.” Or at least, he sort of does. He spends most of the article talking about how we’re consuming more and more media these days—more and more “content.”

He only gets to the crux of the matter in the last few paragraphs, two of which go:

A book is different from the other forms of content listed above. At the risk of sound hokey or trite, there is something sacred about a book that there isn’t about any other form of media.

I believe that books have a history that is unique and sets them apart from all other forms of content. They are, in my view, an indelible part of the culture whose importance and status must be preserved.

Okay, I’ll bite. Why? Why are books more important than other forms of content? That’s basically as far as he goes toward explaining it; the last couple paragraphs are about how if we don’t give books their special place in the limelight, our culture will lose something precious. But again, no further explanations given as to why.

Now, I like books (and e-books!) as much as the next guy. That’s why I’m here blogging about them. But books are not unique in being a way to convey information or a story. Nor are they unique in having a history that goes back hundreds of years.

Just look at playing cards. History books trace their origin back hundreds of years, across continents. But do we make a big deal out of how those are special, and threatened by the rise of board games and video games?

Books are terrific, but I enjoy a good video game, or movie, or TV show, too. I enjoy a good story that is told well in any medium. Is there anything wrong with that if that medium isn’t books? Judging by Berkowitz’s column, the answer is yes, because it isn’t books.

There’s nothing wrong with liking what you like, and thinking what you like is special, because you like it. We all do that. And we rationalize it to ourselves by appealing to history and tradition. I can discuss how movies draw from over a century of cinematographic history just as readily as Berkowitz can discuss how books go back multiple centuries.

But when you offer that appeal up as your sole justification to argue for the primacy of your chosen art form, you just come off looking silly. It makes it easy to make fun of your arguments, because you really haven’t got any. Which is a shame, because books are an important part of our cultural heritage, and do deserve to be protected. It’s just that other parts of our cultural heritage deserve it just as much.

I do think that referring to any media as “content” genericizes and devalues them, which is why I try to avoid it as much as I can. But perhaps media deserve to be taken generically if it means we can get over this silly business of trying to put one of them ahead of any other. Anything that lets us relate stories, history, facts, opinions…those are all worth preserving and protecting.

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TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.


  1. “I just finished ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ last night?” “Oh, yeah, I’ve read that book too”. We say things like this all the time. And, by referring to “Tale of Two Cities” as a “book”, we don’t mean to refer to a single physical object. These people may have read, respectively, a paper book and an e-book, or even an audio book and a paper book. Even if they both read paper books, they are unlikely to have been the same edition, much less the same physical objects. They are referring to the _content_ by the title, not to the medium. And that is, in fact, pretty much the norm.

    The only time we ask about the medium is when the choice is between media that require transformation. “I’m a big fan of ‘Lord of the Rings’.” “Oh, the book or the movie?” Or “I just saw ‘Romeo and Juliet’ last night.” “The play or the opera”? “Neither one – I went to the ballet.”

    With rare exceptions, most books do not require a transformation of content to move back and forth across the paper/e-book divide. So, yes, the content is what matters, not the medium.

  2. I would suggest that the only thing that really, really makes a PHYSICAL book unique among the digital offerings is that it is a work that tells a story or presents a comprehensive body of knowledge in a package that needs no technology or training, beyond literacy, to access.

    I know that’s a bit convoluted, but it might be applicable when the zombie apocalypse comes.

  3. Still, it’s interesting and perhaps informative to think about the differences between pBooks, eBooks, web sites and other containers or venues as information and entertainment (content) vehicles. Confounding these analyses is the fact that authors and other content creators or developers have not fully tapped the newest of these as they have the older ones. While it might be reasonable to argue that the information and entertainment potential of pBooks is being largely realized, one cannot say nearly as much about eBooks because that potential is so much greater and authors are still struggling to handle a richer palette.
    So it’s certainly a challenging question. However, trying to set one above the other on the basis of longevity simply isn’t fair or accurate.

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