From story to book and back again

From story to book and back again


You take the book from the shelf. There is no shelf.

Shelves were taking up too much space in our home; they were taking up too much space in our lives. We never stayed in one place for too long, and you can't take shelves with you, can you? So we didn't weep when we left the shelves behind.

You look at the cover of the book. There is no cover.

Covers were always suspect. We were always told that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but wasn't that what covers were for? Not just to protect the pages from dust, but to remind us what those pages held. In the end our suspicions got the better of us, and we decided that the book had to stand on its own, without its spine. We barely noticed the covers had gone, because they had been replaced by a host of baffling images.

You turn the pages of the book. There are no pages.

Pages had their benefits, sure: we could flip them backwards and forwards, breaking the A to B of the story, reminding ourselves of the facts, clarifying what we thought had just happened but couldn't quite believe. But Pages wrinkle. Pages rip. Pages rub at your fingers like over-familiar cats, leaving a spoor of ink. We suspected that there must be something better, something more platonic, something that would serve the words better than the butterfly board of the pages they were pinned to. We pretended we kept pages, but in fact we had returned to scrolls.

You read the words in the book. There are no words.

Words were the bricks the book was built from. If you replace the words in a book with other words – one at a time, slowly, mind you, slowly until you replace all the words, is it the same book? Of course it isn't, it's another thing entirely. Slowly the host of baffling images replaced the rows of book covers, and what was left wasn't the same thing at all. We woke up one morning to find that pictures had decided that they were literally worth a thousand words, and that we had decided that pictures weren't worth anything. We would produce pictures without end, in an endless circulating vortex that always threatened to overwhelm us if we couldn't look away in time.

You think about the meaning of the book. There is no meaning.

Meanings were what we stored in the words on the pages between the covers on the shelves. That's what we were afraid of losing, as we removed or replaced all the parts of the book: we were afraid that at the end we would lose the meaning, both as ourselves and as the cultures that we came from. We were like boats on the sea, and books were the compass that we steered by; but the planks of the boat were the shelves that we'd left behind, and we'd torn down our paper sails, and now we were adrift, and a storm was coming. Despair strode upon the deck of the boat as if he was the captain. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, that sort of thing. I could go on, but by now you know the story. Did you like it? Did you believe it? It wasn't true, of course. None of it was true. It was just a story.


All books are empty. We fill them up with whatever we have at hand – sense and sensibility, fear and loathing, war and peace – and from those things we build a story. The story is the important thing, and the book is just something we put the story in. When we crack the spine of a book, we're opening it up like a lobster to get at the meat of the story inside.

We try to imagine a world without books, but our imaginations fail us. We're living through the sort of changes that defy any effort to predict or profit from them, and we hate it. Every attempt we make to think about what books might look like once books have disappeared fails, because how can we imagine a bookless book?

We're looking in the wrong place, that's all. We're looking at the finger pointing to the moon, and not looking at the moon itself. The questions we ask ourselves don't tell us a thing about books, or about the future of the book. There aren't answers to those questions, just stories to be told, and that's where we're failing. We're not telling those stories.

We shouldn't be too worried. Stories have a way of getting themselves told. They snake into every nook and cranny, they take advantage of every possible opportunity to be told. In a few places, for a few hundred years, their favourite habitat was the book; but we decided to take a torch to it, just as we have to so many other habitats on the planet. Now they'll look for somewhere new to live.

We shouldn't waste time worrying about the future of the book. We'd do better to get busy opening up multiple futures for the book. Books of every form, for every function; books that live happily on every shelf and every platform; books that hold up table legs and books that hold up download speeds; books stitched together from tiny pieces, and books that are shattered into tiny pieces.

Still, we worry. We can't imagine a world without books, even though most of the world already lives without books. We wonder if that will be the end of the story, and we take the book from the shelf and open the cover and turn the pages and find them empty. We need reassurance; but, when faced with an empty page, we need to remember that the empty page is where we are free.

An empty page is a story waiting to happen.