But Is It a Book?

Editor’s Note: Jennifer Howard spent a week in early July at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, taking a course on “Born-Digital Materials: Theory & Practice.” This is the first in a series of posts on the experience.

Charlottesville, Va. — What makes a book a book? For Michael F. Suarez, director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, a collection of texts on an e-reader doesn’t qualify in the fullest sense.

Over macaroni and cheese in early July at the Virginian, an eatery across from the university’s Grounds, Mr. Suarez talked with The Chronicle about how much more there is to a book than the words that go into it.

“When you take the text of Moby-Dick and pour it into a Kindle, you strip out the bibliographic codes and you strip out the social codes,” he says. “You lose that hermeneutic surplus of meaning that the book is.”

Mr. Suarez was on a lunchtime break from his “Teaching the History of the Book” course at the Rare Book School. This reporter, enrolled in “Born-Digital Materials: Theory and Practice,” was curious about how someone who had devoted his life to the study of books, bibliography, and book history viewed e-books.

When he talks about bibliographic codes, Mr. Suarez means the elements that together make up the book as object. That includes paper stock, bindings, typeface, and illustrations. Just as important, he says, are the social codes embedded in a book. A Harlequin romance has cues built in that alert a reader to what it is. (Picture a bare-chested Fabio against a Scottish highlands backdrop.) A scholarly monograph announces itself through a different set of cues.

“When you see a book in the airport, you know what it is and what it’s for,” Mr. Suarez says. Ditto a book in an academic bookstore, although the cues will be rather different. “There are social codes kind of signaling to you all the time,” he says.

Those codes disappear, though, when a text escapes paper and becomes electronic. Put a bodice-ripper or a scholarly treatise on an e-reader and what remains is the text itself—what Mr. Suarez calls the linguistic codes of a book.

That may be all a casual reader craves. Portable and able to hold many books at a time, e-readers can be great text-delivery systems. But they don’t hold the physicality, the history, the social context of a book. The packaging and reception of Moby-Dick “is part of the story” to a book historian like Mr. Suarez.

“The problem with that is in English departments—that’s what we’ve been taught the book is,” he says. “It’s only the linguistic codes. ‘Call me Ishmael … and I alone survived to tell you.’ And that’s all there is.”

To a book historian, though, “every book is an interpretation or theory about the embodiment of some ideas about who that author is, an embodiment of ideas about how the story should make its meaning,” he says. Try conveying that on a Kindle.

Mr. Suarez is not tech-averse. “I would be the last person in the world to say that a Kindle or a Nook is a bad thing,” he says. “If it’s promoting reading, that’s great.”

We talked about multimedia e-books/apps such as The Pedlar Lady of Gushing Cross, a favorite of his niece’s. One can see that as part of the great sweep of the history of text, along with newspapers and ink-squeeze rubbings and computer printouts, he says, but interacting with it isn’t exactly reading. It’s more like “watching a film that happens to have words.”

The important question is, “What do we gain in the digital environment and what do we lose in the digital environment?,” Mr. Suarez says. “And if we lose a sense of the ‘artifactuality’ of the book, we also gain some other things.” Digitizing texts gives more people access to them, and allows researchers to ask questions they couldn’t ask before.

He’s involved in a large-scale digital-publishing venture, Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, which he describes as “a digital corpora” of Oxford University Press’s scholarly editions. The first batch of editions is scheduled to make its debut in September.

A Jesuit priest as well as a professor of English, Mr. Suarez has been director of the Rare Book School since 2009. He succeeded the school’s founder, Terry Belanger, who created it at Columbia University in 1983 and moved it to the University of Virginia in 1992. A 501(c)(3) organization, the school exists as an independent but university-affiliated corporation.

Mr. Suarez says he likes to think that the Rare Book School “exists to bring cultural capital into the only university in America founded by an 18th-century bookman,” Thomas Jefferson. With a long tradition of scholarly bibliographic work, Virginia “seems like the perfect place for an international academy dedicated to the education of librarians and academics and collectors and book dealers and conservators and all people who have an interest in the history and development of recorded text,” he says.

Note the phrase “recorded text.” Much of the Rare Book School curriculum focuses on paper and printed materials, with courses on the history of book illustration, book binding, paleography, and descriptive bibliography. (A recent New York Times article explored that side of the school.)

But Mr. Suarez has built a strong digital component into the program as well. In addition to “Born-Digital Materials,” offerings this summer included sessions on “Digitizing the Historical Record,” “Electronic Texts in XML,” and “XML in Action.”

“I’m a person who believes that born-digital materials are digital incunables,” Mr. Suarez says. (“Incunabula” is the term commonly applied to material printed in Europe before 1501.) “They deserve all the attention and care as other kinds of texts that we value as moments in our cultural history.”

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