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.

Let’s think of a text as an ordered, structured sequence of words. It should be apparent that a text may not have a physical form; for example, I could compose the text of a poem in my mind. That’s why a text is an abstraction. Of course, a text can take a physical form: sound waves, ink marks, or screen pixels, for example. Humans like to deal with abstractions by associating them with physical entities, so it makes sense that we create metaphors for conceptualising texts by associating them with certain physical forms. The metaphor that has come to dominate our ideas of textuality is that of text as book.

The metaphor of text as book has become so deeply embedded in our thinking that we don’t think of it as a metaphor at all. From the earliest written records of English, boc (the Old English form of modern English book) could mean both ‘object that text is written in’ and ‘text written in such an object’. The word was used to translate Latin liber, which also could mean either a physical document or the text written in such a document – although, in most contexts, this document was a scroll or bookroll, and not a codex. So, today, English speakers often conflate text and book, so that when they think of desert island books, they can imagine scenarios in which two different individuals on two separate islands are reading ‘the same book’ – meaning, of course, that they are reading two different physical objects in which the same text is encoded.

Why does it matter that we recognise text-as-book as a metaphor? First, when we realise that texts aren’t books, we can also imagine and recognise other metaphors for textuality. In medieval Europe, for example, the metaphor of text-as-book competed with metaphors of text-as-voice, text-as-tree, and text-as-building. We don’t have to think of texts as books. When we expand our range of metaphors, we also get a wider view of textuality, historical and potential.

metaphors have implications for the way we think
Second, the metaphors we use for concepts like textuality become models by which we not only think about textuality, but also recognise, create, and manipulate forms of textuality. Metaphors come with embedded assumptions. If our idea of a book is of a print codex, rather than a manuscript scroll, how does that idea influence the way we think about texts? I’m not suggesting that any one metaphor is somehow better or more ‘correct’ than another; the point I want to make is that metaphors have implications for the way we think and, therefore, the way we put our thoughts into form and action. For example, if we imagine a text as a tree, we may assume that it will have hierarchical branching structures that will constrain the ways we find information in it or navigate it. If we imagine a text as a codex, the design features we associate with a codex will constrain the ways we think about the text.
The Miller, Ellesmere MS (Huntingdon Library MS EL 26 C 9, fol. 34r, detail)

Here’s an example. It’s from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A heterogenous group of pilgrims is engaged in a storytelling contest on the way to Canterbury. After a courtly, classically inflected story of love and war told by the Knight, the drunken Miller insists on interjecting himself into the social order and telling his tale, which will obviously be rated ‘R’ for offensive language, graphic sexual content, and violence – a ‘cherles tale’ (line 3169), we’re warned. Chaucer pretends to be in a quandary. He insists that he is obliged to record all the pilgrims’ tales, ‘be they bettre or werse’ (line 3174), but some of his readers or listeners might find the Miller’s Tale offensive – it’s not Chaucer’s fault, of course, that the Miller is a churl. So he leaves it up to us: if you don’t want to hear the Miller’s Tale, ‘Turne over the leef and chese another tale’ (line 3177); that is, turn the page and choose another story. Of course this is a sly strategy to get us interested in reading the Miller’s Tale, much as censuring or censoring a book will increase its sales, since forbidden fruit is always the most tempting. But notice how Chaucer audaciously mixes metaphors, sliding from text-as-voice (‘whoso list it nat yheere’) to text-as-book (‘Turne over the leef’) in the space of two successive lines. Is the Miller’s Tale a spoken story, told by a not-very-pious pilgrim to listeners who cannot avoid hearing it except by rudely riding away, or is it a written text in a codex, which the reader can avoid by flipping to a different part of the book? In two lines, Chaucer not only brings to our attention two different ways of conceptualising the text of the Miller’s Tale, but also shows us that these two different metaphors have different implications for the problem of choice.

Digital technologies today give us even more options for putting texts into physical forms. Audiobooks, now so popular, are bringing back the idea of text as voice. The hierarchical models used in many forms of computer processing are based on the metaphor of text as tree. I’m personally interested in exploring the idea of text as building, once so widespread in medieval thought and today implicit in the phrase ‘information architecture’ (even if not always adequately embodied in practice). What about text as performance? Text as image? Text as game? Recognising metaphors of textuality enables us to work outside those metaphors instead of being imprisoned within them; it enables us to choose the metaphors and models we want and to be conscious of their limitations and implications.

[PS. My choice of desert island book would probably be the Oxford English Dictionary Online, the current edition of that classic and continually updated lexicographical work. Not only could I reconstruct large swathes of English literature from its quotations, the dictionary would require an internet connection for access, which means that I’d be able to contact the outside world to rescue me from the desert island if I wished. However, at present, I might very well order in pizza instead and stay on the island until the COVID-19 pandemic is over.]

References and Further Reading

Search for ‘desert island books’ or ‘desert island reading’ on the Web and you will get lots of lists.

The distinction between work, text, and document has been made by Peter Shillingsberg in much of his published scholarship; see, for example, his Scholarly Editing in the Digital Age, 3rd ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 42-47.

For the early history of the English word book, the best sources are the Oxford English Dictionary and the Toronto Dictionary of Old English. Both are available only by subscription, but the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary is available on the Web; there you can look at the entry for boc.

The physicality of books is emphasised in standard medieval discussions of the etymology of Latin liber, which, like the etymology of English boc (see OED s.v. book), is associated with trees (in the case of liber, with tree bark); see Isidore of Seville, Etymologies 6.13, a passage which is followed very closely in Hugh of St Victor, Didascalicon 4.16. Isidore’s idea of textuality is heavily rhetorical; that is, he is much more likely to think of textual features and forms as attributes of spoken oration than of writing.

The classic discussion of the ubiquity of metaphor in our cognitive processes and language is George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

The standard scholarly edition of Chaucer, from which I quote and to which my line numbers refer, is Larry D. Benson et al., eds., The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

Ivan Illich in In the Vineyard of the Text (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), a discussion of Hugh of St Victor’s Didascalicon, argues that the idea of the ‘bookish text’ emerged in the twelfth century – that is, the idea of the text was abstracted from the object of the book. I think the phenomenon was real, but it happened the other way; medieval people had lots of ways to handle texts as mental constructs and could do so in non-literate environments, but the metaphor of text as book increasingly dominated. 

Finally, for a compelling fictional presentation of text as a purely mental construct, independent of external physical form, see Jorge Luis Borges’ short story ‘El milagro secreto’ (1943), translated into English as ‘The Secret Miracle’ and collected in Ficciones.

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