I am not particularly interested in the book as object, or in the technology of the transmission of the text. Cuneiform, papyrus and codex, Linear A and B, the invention of movable type, all that sort of stuff. These have been recurrent topics in the new field since the 1970s, and the focus seemed almost wilfully to disregard the content of the texts that were transmitted. Do these new book historians actually love reading?
One of them, Frederick G Kilgour, has defined the book as “a storehouse of human knowledge intended for dissemination in the form of an artefact that is portable – or at least transportable – and that contains arrangements of signs that convey information. The information may comprise stories, myths, songs, and reality; the signs may be representations of human speech or graphic presentations of such things as maps, musical notes, or pictures.” The definition hardly trips off the tongue. No one, encountering such a formulation, is likely to get excited and set off in search of one of those. Give me Kafka’s definition of a book any day: “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Admittedly that wouldn’t help you to find one of them in an attic, but you recognise immediately that Kafka gets it, and Kilgour does not.
Ah, thanks, Mr. Gekoski — so glad to know that anyone who is interested in any aspect of the book that you’re not interested in “doesn’t get it.” Because of course trying to understand the immensely complex material history of the book is utterly incommensurate with loving reading. And of course the only possible reason for trying to define something is to get people excited so that they will go off in search of the thing defined. It’s so obvious, now that you’ve pointed it out. You twit.