Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Reporting vs investigating supposedly authoritative definitions of a "book"

What 'objective' reporter considered their career complete if they didn't - at least once - stenographically report the latest numbers on book production .

That is faithfully report the utterings of this or that seemingly important organization proclaiming (based on their own statistics , based on FACTS !) their take on current book production ----- and who then using these numbers to confidently predict general cultural joy or gloom ?

So, according to this or that authoritative spokesperson , last year's production of books in Canada or the UK is way up (or way down) and China is now producing two times more (less) books per capita than America , which means that Chinese guided communism is superior/inferior to American capitalist democracy.

Etc, etc.

But historians look way beyond mere 'facts' to consider whether their substance is true.

Because most of the 'facts' of objective reporters, on closer examination, are merely the undoubted fact that this person did indeed make this claim on this day, at this place.

Almost always, these claims are published  as is - where is , rather than being ignored, because they are claims made by important people.

The sort of important people who could go golfing with the publisher or the head of advertising sales - the sort of people who are likely to cause the reporter much trouble , if the reporter dares to question or examine those claims.

To be serious for a moment , most claims published by reporters about changes in book production, or which nation produces more books that others per capita are not in fact the ones offered up by suspect self-serving bodies like the *associations of the big commercial publishers.

*Aka , the sort who might golf with the publisher.

They come from relatively neutral data collecting bodies like PW (Publishers' Weekly) or Bowkers --- but that doesn't mean they aren't unintentionally deceiving -- as this amusing brief account of  some of the history of American book accounting changes makes clear.

A book isn't at all easy to define - if philosophically one simply feels that everything must have one and one definition only .

Many honest people of good will have stumbled about trying for an ever more definitive description, so that their annual statistics have varied wildly , on a year by year comparison, over time.

And "time" is the historians' stock in trade, as exclusive "facts" are to objective journalists.

An objective reporter beams " I have uncovered, in this exclusive interview granted only to me, a new fact" --- but the historian quickly notes that it isn't really new , but merely new paint on an old idea tried and failed back in the 1920s.

Time - the history of attempts to define the book - encourages one to cast a jaundiced eye on any new all-encompassing definition of the book versus the non-book.

But those definitions have severe consequences.

In 1977, for example , the Canada Council decided to alter its definition of what it meant by a book , in terms of eligibility for prizes and grants.

It used a definition dreamed up by UNESCO in the mid 1950s and still the most common definition worldwide sixty years later.

A book was a bound publication, not a periodical , of more than 49 printed pages, not counting the cover*.

(Heaven help the brief book that dared to be a self-cover !)

At a stroke, most Canadian poetry and children books became non-books to UNESCO and its global syncopants - 'pamphlets' was now their correct term.

Poetry (and fine books/micro presses in general) remain in that limbo because there was no money in poetry or micro presses or in books as beautiful art objects .

But parents and publishers of books for children have money and votes and most nations now accept a bound publication of eight pages intended for children as being fully a 'book'.

But at various times and places, self published books, or books without ISBNs, or books given away free, or self-covers, or government books , 0r cookbooks, directories or manuals were all excluded from the definition of books.

And were multi-volume books to be counted by volume or as a set ?

On and on.

Often the subject of binding is evoked , to allow staple bound books to be cast out of the hallowed circle that we assign anything called a "book" , eliminating an annoying competitor to big book publishers.

Story Papers

Story papers, which are books in the shape of newsprint newspapers , are even further beyond the pale - not even being bound by staples let alone traditional sewing.

Book historians know they were once very common and still exist to day in places like France, but most anglo newspaper reporters do not know of them.

(Note that since most books today are glued not sewed, the glued (perfect bound) book's traditional exclusion from the hallowed circle has been reversed : money, as always, talks.)

Ironically, story papers, I argue, have the strongest binding of all methods , short of the most elaborately sewn (old fashioned Smyth style) books.

Firstly, the physics of friction suggests that large pieces of rough paper tightly folded into one another have very strong holding power that can pulled apart (with some difficulty) but that the the holding power is also permanent and easily reformed.

In addition, each page and section is clearly marked, so may reader can easily reassemble this 'newspaper book' back together again.

Try that with a perfect bound book when a page falls out !

(I suppose to be conventional , I should insert here the whole question e-books and their problems fitting into questions of number of pages and method of binding.)

In my view , the word 'book' should ideally be an almost a blank term , meaningless until it is complete by a brief description .

So , a missionary's free 8 page book of 20 words and 6 color pictures versus a hard bound book of 800 pages and 300,000 words with no pictures at all , priced at $89 and sold by a big New York publisher.

Free books - today, if they are digital rather than paper, we tend to call them OPEN ACCESS books - have long been excluded from the conventional book lists in capitalist countries, despite the long tradition of free missionary books and tracts in those same countries, while communist countries do count them.

(America may 'Trust in God' , but it worships money more.)

I wonder then where my free pre-imposed downloadable PDF books (a modern day take on story papers), designed to allow the reader to print out and assemble a small book themselves using their computer printer, fits on these lists ....

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