What is a Book?

Recently I bought three books. I have a bad habit of buying books — you might even call it an addiction to books because I can’t seem to stop. Each book is a possibility, a world I can enter, a person I can become. Each book will leave me somehow different. Usually I buy novels, but I also like to buy books on gardening or just nature in general, on decorating and things to do in the home, on fashion and the history of clothes, things like that. The sorts of books I can read at night without getting too involved, because honestly, reading anything with a plot after about 9:00 p.m. is deadly. I will stay up and stay up, reading to find out what happens, and then it’s midnight or maybe even 2:00 a.m., and I am completely ruined the next day.

So recently I bought three books: Marie Kondo’s Kurashi at Home, Akiko Busch’s Everything Else is Bric-a-Brac, and Paola Merrill’s The Cottage Fairy Companion. And they led me to this question, what is a book, because when I talk about “writing a book,” I’m usually thinking about a novel, or maybe a collection of short stories, but something relatively long and substantive. I feel as though “a book” is something I need to put a great deal of work into. And while I’m sure all three of these books had a lot of work put into them, they are substantially lighter than what I think of when I set out to write a book.

The Marie Kondo book is a collection of thoughts with beautiful photographs, much shorter than her other books on tidying up, although still helpful. I particularly like the section on how to organize your day. The Akiko Busch book is a series of short essays on home — the things we have in it and what we do in it. For example, there is an essay called “Sofa,” an essay on family dinners. The Paola Merrill book also has beautiful photographs, as well as watercolor illustrations, instructions for crafts, recipes, short poems . . . And woven into them is a sort of memoir about living in the country, which is what caught my interest. I like them all very much, but I would have hesitated to write anything like them.

Maybe I’m thinking about books the wrong way? Maybe a book is simply whatever exists between two covers? Maybe “book” refers to a technology rather than contents? That may be blindingly obvious to you, but it’s not intuitive to me as a writer. And part of it comes from a sense of diffidence, as though I have to deliver a lot of value for anyone to buy something I wrote. I have to put a lot of words in there to make them worth your dollars.

But here are some other things that could be books: a children’s picture book, a book of poems, a book of essays (I would love to write one of these), a collection of quotations or affirmations (I’ve certainly seen these in the bookstore), advice for how to live (there are loads of these), a book of spells, a book of tales collected from various cultures, experimental narratives that bring into question the whole idea of story, etc. etc. There are lots of ways for things to be books. Lots of ways to book, if I can turn the object into an action. Many many ways of booking.

So the question for me is, how would I like to book? What sorts of books would I like to create? Novels, of course. But also collections of short stories. Poetry collections. I would like to edit short story and poetry collections. I would like to write a children’s book. And I would like to write nonfiction as well — for example, turning my Fairytale Heroine’s Journey essays into a book. There are so many projects I want to do in book form, and one of the things that holds me back is my idea of what will be accepted from me, what sort of book people like agents and publishers and even readers are looking for. Because I’m afraid that some of those projects would simply not sell.

I have an imaginary dialog in my head that goes something like this:

“I would like to do a poetry collection.”

“Who are you, to think you could do a poetry collection? You’re not some famous poet, you know. Who would be interested in it? Who would buy it?”

To which I could only answer, “Yes, I know, I know.”

The dialog comes partly out of my childhood and the sense I got that books were created by special people called Authors, who were different from the rest of us ordinary mortals. I, being quite an ordinary mortal, could never aspire to such heights. Granted, at this point I’ve seen plenty of authors up close, and I’ve learned that they are ordinary mortals after all. They are extraordinary only in one thing: they are obstinate as mules.

In the face of vast indifference, they write and write and write, and they generally write what they damn well please, and if you don’t like it, they will write some more.

That is the main thing I have learned about authors, and I think that is generally the way books are made: an author comes up with an idea, she writes it down, she says will anyone turn this into a book? And if someone does, then it’s a book. And if someone doesn’t, then she turns it into a book anyway, either by self-publishing, or waiting and writing another book and selling that, and then going back and selling the first book, or maybe she just puts it into a trunk in the attic and then dies, and eventually someone finds the manuscript and it’s published and becomes a classic and everyone else makes money off it while the author lies mouldering in her grave. But her skeleton smiles in satisfaction, I bet.

So what is a book? I bet a thousand and one things can be books, and I bet there are a thousand and one ways for books to get made, and I think I should get over my worries and fears and doubts because every single author I’ve ever met has had those worries and fears and doubts, substantially the same and therefore rather boring after all. And I should just work on turning my ideas and stories and poems and dreams and even random thoughts into books. Right?

(The image is an illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith.)

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10 Responses to What is a Book?

  1. Nancy says:

    You know, creating a multi-genre book is nice. I wrote a novella that had poetry inserted.

  2. .a book is what you, the Author, conceive it to be, what you intend the experience to be. Once you free yourself of the “should be-S”you enter the world of the “could be-S,” which brings the reader into your world.

  3. cathypearl says:

    Go for it! 😊

  4. Sarah Swett says:

    Indeed— absolutely right.
    And I will happily read whatever it is.
    Blissfully read it.
    But probably not right before bed—
    or I’d be up all night.
    Though actually—
    So what if I’m up all night?
    I’ll be reading your book.
    And be content.

  5. Roy Wallen says:

    We are compelled to write, not because it “needs to sell” or in pursuit of some commercial enterprise. We write because there is something inside that needs to get out. If someone reads it, we get great satisfaction. If no one reads it, we still get great satisfaction, knowing that the thing stuck inside us has now been born. We get to decide if it is a book or whether it remains a stack of papers or, worst of all, an idea without germination and fruit.

  6. Kat says:

    I would read anything you wrote. Don’t wait. The years go faster than you think.

  7. helen says:

    Right. I hope that you continue to book as much as possible, a day containing a book, a story or a poem by you is always a good day.

    And I am intrigued by what you wrote about authors, because I used to feel the same – that other, ‘proper’ people wrote books and I was not worthy. It was reading your blog, where you wrote about your writing life, the tribulations, the perseverence, the joy, what you were reading, what you were thinking about, this blog that made me think, well why shouldn’t I write too? You showed that to be a writer you have to put in the time and the energy, when weirdly I’d always assumed that writers just wrote down whatever came into their heads and ta-dah! It was a wonderful novel.

    (I hope this isn’t disrespectful! I mean, you are also obviously very talented, but your honesty showed that talent needs work to flourish.)

    Anyway, I thought, well I can put in the effort even if I don’t have the talent, so I have, and now I am floundering about in the zillionth draft of a children’s novel and following a writing course and having a great – and scary! – time doing it. And even if nobody ever reads this book, it was worth writing just of itself. And for that, I have you to thank. (Sorry that the comment is so long.)

    So – thank you very much, Theodora Goss, inspirer of writers! And here’s to your next book! And the next!

    • Roy Wallen says:

      There is an excellent book by Geoff Colvin titled _Talent Is Overrated_. It complements the more popular book by Malcolm Gladwell titled _Outliers_ where he said achievement is talent plus preparation. The premise for both books is that it is not talent that matters – if it even exists. Rather, it is perseverence and hard work that yields results. That lousy first draft (all mine are) only gets good if it becomes the 10th (ot 20th or 30th) draft. That takes work and the attribute my grandfather called sticktoitiveness. Write on.

      • helen says:

        How nice of you to reply, thank you! I’ll look out for that book and practise your grandfather’s attribute. I’m only on the fourth draft so I have a loooong way to go. Good luck and happy writing.

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