Fly on the Wall – What is A Book?

“What is a book?”

“What do you mean, what is a book, it’s wood pulped and pressed and imprinted with ink. Your philosophizing is always so preposterous.”

“Ok, well, get this. I know a recently-retired professor who cleaned out his office and tried to give away some of his books. Yet neither the local library nor the local used book store would take them. Why? Because they were textbooks. They said they don’t ’take’ textbooks. So, either textbooks aren’t books or there is more to what defines a ’book’ than one might assume.”

“Huh. Or it’s just that no one likes textbooks. Personally, they make me wanna cut class and go ride bikes. Let’s go!”

Quotations or no, the above anecdote is true and bears further consideration. Is a ’textbook’ not a book? This is a particularly curious question for us as distance education students. We at AU live a double life, in a sense. Family and friends and coworkers all read books, yet, as students, we also read textbooks, and do so with less interruption or instruction from tutors than students from traditional universities. This suggests a unique interaction with our course material. To many, a textbook is different and, being educational, our peers may even classify it as boring. Yet these same peers may spend hours reading about how to undertake a new hobby. But how do textbooks differ from other books? Perhaps textbook/book dualism reflects the subject/object divide; we seek to be the subject of our own lives (for instance by reading books of our choosing) rather than the object of authority (as implied by textbooks in a context of institutionalized education). Perhaps AU students live in the best of both worlds, being as how we interact with course material largely on our own terms and, in a sense, make the textbooks our own.

A brief history is in order. Textbooks, in the modern sense, began to proliferate after 1436, when Joseph Gutenberg created a printing press that drastically increased the speed at which the written word could be produced. As it turns out, he created the printing press to offset a lack of profits in his other business venture, the sale of metal mirrors (Lilly, online). From mirrors to expression, the world appears to have become less about gazing inward and more about pushing oneself out into the social sphere. Certainly we live more in an expressive world in 2017 than ever before; the blogopshere and social media allow anyone to express anything to anywhere.

Simone de Beauvoir, in her classic feminist book The Second Sex, suggested that “whatever we perceive, including other people, is rendered as an “object”’ to our gaze and is defined by us. The very concept of “woman”, de Beauvoir argues, is a male concept: woman is always “other” because the male is the “seer”: he is the subject and she the object ? the meaning of what it is to be a woman is given by men (Joseph, online). It could be that a textbook places readers in the “object” position; it demands that we accommodate it on its own terms, and see ourselves as mere receptacles of external information with limited space for creativity or pleasure. For de Beauvoir, “no subject will readily volunteer to become the object, the inessential; it is not the Other who, in defining himself as the Other, establishes the One. The Other is posed as such by the One in defining himself as the One. But if the Other is not to regain the status of being the One, he must be submissive enough to accept this alien point of view” (de Beauvoir, online). In a struggle for self-definition and autonomy, books as leisure activities appear as effective illustrations of our identity in a way that mandatory textbooks fail to match. While a textbook leads to an exam, a pleasurable read permits the reader to say “I just liked it” rather than explain how or why. The meaning and pleasure of a non-textbook remains a private and internal, and therefore self-defining, aspect of its experience.

So, besides the separation of inward and outward (subject/object) orientation, why does this bifurcation within the world of books exist? It could be that one type receives social sanction and another approbation; after all, isn’t school boring? Doesn’t it, to use the vulgar term, “suck”? Incidentally, Gutenberg published the first printed version of the Vulgate Bible, a version written using the common vernacular of the people. It was termed the “vulgate” because “vulgaris” is Latin for “common” (Stack Exchange, online). Ironically, the term “vulgar” today commonly means uncouth while the term “common” means typical or boring. In a sense the common has become less vulgar while the vulgar has become less common. Perhaps there is a fissure between the common definition of a book and a definition that includes even those “boring” textbooks.

We all know the phrase “you are what you eat” and, depending on the cuisine, the truth of that seeps out of our pores. Perhaps we are also what we read, and, indeed, our essence may be expressed by what literature we imbibe. As distance education students, our academic reading functions primarily to attain a degree and secondarily to attain a job or grow as an individual; it makes us who we are in conjunction with our leisure reading. Lifelong learning has a structure for us, compared to the self-taught student who, though often glowing with knowledge, may have meandered between subjects somewhat haphazardly. Many of us at AU fit both categories; we wouldn’t return to school after years or decades away from it if, in our hearts, we did not have a desire to glean knowledge. So we read textbooks for school and enjoy them to various extents. We are what we read in a way that surpasses a simple division of “book” from “textbook”.

Casual readers may read fiction for entertainment, self-help books to learn to love themselves or technical books so they can renovate their bathroom. The latter category is of particular interest, given that a book of do-it-yourself instructions bears a striking similarity to a textbook. The cleavage between “book” and “textbook” now seems to narrow.

Robert Pirsig’s classic 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance aptly differentiates two ways of looking at the world: the first technical, the second philosophical. His book combines the vocational abilities of tending to his motorcycle on a father-son road trip with the philosophical considerations of Zen Buddhism and an overall appreciation of nature. Pirsig writes “what we have here is a conflict of visions of reality. The world as you see it right here, right now, is reality, regardless of what the scientists say it might be. But the world as revealed by its scientific discoveries is also reality, regardless of how it may appear … what you’ve got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don’t match and they don’t fit and they don’t really have much of anything to do with one another. That’s quite a situation. You might say there’s a little problem here” (Pirsig, 1974, p. 51) His solution to the problem is to synthesize these two approaches into a flowing unity. The phrase “wherever you go, there you are” comes to mind: even if you drop your wrench there will still be a mountain vista, even if you miss the boat there will still be a wonderful sunset.

Inhabiting two spheres of mind is nothing new for distance students. We have the external worlds of work and family while also existing in a relatively insular, private, landscape embodying our educational journey. Likewise, the line between book and textbook is blurred, if not smudged. To anyone who has found time to finish an AU essay before leaving for their day job, this sounds familiar. Our lives are a meeting of realms. In this way, too, the meeting of our minds and bodies represents a dualism within philosophy and thus within life itself.

It seems clear that differentiations between textbook and book are arbitrary and socially-constructed; if we enjoy a book we say we are reading it, if we find a certain book tedious we may ascribe it with the term “textbook”. In the end, there are not many types of books but one; our labels are our own, as personal as our choice of school courses or leisure reading. Being as many of us alternate high-minded study of a text to pass a quiz with ostensibly-vulgar activities, like reading a recipe to make a grocery list, we AU students are well-equipped to ascertain the reality of the nebulous realm of what defines the academic versus the practical. What is a book? A book is what we make it out to be, what we think of it. Any reading is better than none, after all, and it’s hard to conceive of bad learning. We learn to define ourselves, our subjectivity, by what we read and whether it agrees with us or makes us feel like a mere object of institutionalized knowledge.

de Beauvoir, S. ’The Second Sex’. (1949). Accessed January 11, 2017, Language and Usage. ’Stack Exchange’. Accessed January 11, 2017,“Gutenberg Bible, New Testament.,” The Lilly Library Digital Collections, accessed January 5, 2017,, N., in G.W. Hegel., ’Lectures on the History of Philosophy’, accessed January 5, 2017,, R. ’Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, An Inquiry Into Values: 40th Anniversary Edition’. London: Vintage, 2004., accessed January 5, 2017,

Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.

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