What is a Book, Anyway?

After recently checking (obsessing over?) the Amazon sales numbers and reviews for my newly released novel FAST BACKWARD, I strayed over to some of my other books. And I noticed a two-star review for SOMEONE WAS WATCHING. Which got my attention. That particular book has consistently gotten top-notch reviews since its publication twenty-five years ago. And that was before Amazon was even a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’s eye.

It’s an author fact of life that the negative reviews are the ones you remember, the ones that haunt you, the ones that spur your curiosity in the first place. So, I was curious. I wanted to see what this reader didn’t like about the story.

But it wasn’t the story. Apparently, he or she had ordered a used book from Amazon, and although it was purported to be in excellent condition, when it arrived, the cover was the only thing that was in even decent condition. According to the reviewer, pages were bent back and the book “smelled musty,” as if it had gotten wet.

Well, I wouldn’t be happy with that, either. But the review made me wonder: What, exactly, is a book? Is it the quality of the cover? The illustration(s) on the cover, front and back and spine? The design, inside and out? The pages? Their color? The font? Should a review consider those factors when weighing an overall judgment?

Or is it all about the story: its context (setting, point of view, tense, style, voice); characters; conflict; choices the characters make when faced with the conflict; changes the characters demonstrate as a result of the conflict and their response to it; how well the author connects all the pieces of the narrative; and finally, how good a job the author does of, as Elmore Leonard liked to advise, “getting rid of the parts that readers don’t want to read.” In other words, compressing and distilling the story down to its essence, making it virtually impossible for readers, even eager ones, to skip ahead to the “real” stuff.

My vote is for story. I still enjoy physical books, especially when they’re fresh off the shelves with their pristine dust covers and beautiful art and bios and photos of the authors. I like their weight in my hand and the easy way you can page through them and jot notes in memorable places and stick a bookmark wherever you want. But whether I’m reading a story between the covers of a traditional book or on an e-reader or hearing it through the voice of an audio “book” narrator, when I think about or talk about a book, I’m focused on the writing.

What about you?

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