Jan 28, 2022

The Text-as-Book Metaphor

Yin Liu

Quick, answer this question before overthinking it: if you could take only one book with you to a desert island, what book would it be?

Image from Pixabay

If you answered Robinson Crusoe, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or the Bible, apparently you are one of many people who would make the same choice. But wait. The question was ‘what book would it be?’ And your answer probably named a work. Let’s say you chose Joyce’s Ulysses. Which edition? The question is particularly acute for this work because the editing of Ulysses has been the subject of notorious controversy. Or, if you chose Dante’s Commedia, are you planning to read it in the original early 14th-century Italian, or in translation – and if in translation, whose? And if you chose the Bible . . . well, I won’t even start heading into the complications there.

The 1st (1719) ed. of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
I owe the distinction among work, text, and document to Peter Shillingsberg, and it is a very useful distinction because it reminds us that a text is an abstraction, and a work even more so. Only a document is a physical entity that you can take with you to a desert island. That means, if you chose Robinson Crusoe, what you will have to read on your desert island is a physical book – for example, a printed codex with your name on the flyleaf and a slight stain on the corner where it came into contact with a puddle of coffee, edited so that the spelling and font are easier on your 21st-century eyes than the typeset pages of the first edition would have been, with an introduction and notes added by an editor – or whatever your unique book of choice might be like. That is, we use the English word book to refer to a physical object, a document; but we also use it to refer to a text (e.g. the King James Bible) or a work (e.g. Dante’s Divina Commedia, in all its versions and translations). I’m going to leave consideration of the ‘work’ aside for now, because it’s even more complicated, and focus on the idea of the ‘text’ – and the way it gets conflated with the idea of a book.