Books Beyond Books

The whole e-books vs. traditional books debate spins crazily about one question: What is a book, anyhow?

Let’s pursue that question a step further: What is a reader?

Science-fiction (etc.) author Cory Doctorow tackles both questions in a very interesting project of his, called With a Little Help. It’s a self-published “book” — an anthology of short fiction — available in a dizzying variety of forms. For starters, he’s selling multiple physical editions of the anthology: paperback and hardcover print editions, and CDs of an audiobook version. He’s taken it a step further, though, by offering With a Little Help in multiple e-book formats (from plain text on up to EPUB, MOBI, and so on) and multiple audiobook formats (MP3, WAV, OGG)… and all the downloads are free.

He’s taking the free-digital-download release further:

The full text of all the stories in this collection is available as free downloads under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, meaning that you can copy them and make your own versions, but you can’t make money off them and you have to let others remix your creations. The audiobooks are likewise available as free downloads on the same terms.

I myself am not interested in remixing anything, but I thought you’d enjoy this story, “The Right Book” (read by Neil Gaiman). If you’d like to read along, the text is here (opens in new window/tab). It’s a tale reaching 150 years into the future, giving us a peek into not just how books (or “books”) might be sold, but how the readers (or “readers”) of books may change as well.

[Click Play button to begin listening. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 17:54 long.]

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Send to Kindle


  1. I have always wondered if I am really a reader. I mean, I engage in the act of reading. For (estimated) between 12 and 14 hours a day. But am I a “reader”? Do I read for the right reasons? Am I maybe only a text addict? Or a codependent antisocialite? These questions are confusing and immortal.

  2. whaddayamean: From the “afterword” of the story:

    In the past, the love affair with books often began outside of bookstores, in grocers and pharmacies, where you might happen upon any number of quirky, hand-picked paperbacks stocked by the local distributor. With the choice of books available outside of bookstores narrowed to the handful of titles with national distribution, it’s far less likely that any given reader will discover “the right book” — the one that turns her into a book-junkie for the rest of her life.

    I love this idea of a book which flips the “reader switch” to the On position. Any idea what it might have been for you?

    Froog was telling me a couple weeks ago — here or on his blog, I can’t remember — that when he reads fiction, he becomes lost in the fictional world in the same way he becomes lost in watching a movie. (Froog, if you’re reading this and I’ve misstated, please correct!) Do you escape in anything like this way? (It seems to me to be a symptom of real readerdom.)

    The phrase “codependent antisocialite” is one of the funniest ones I’ve come across in days.

  3. My daughter’s switch-flipping book was Watership Down, which I suggested for a book report. She ran downstairs to tell me that she had fallen in love with reading and asked if I had any other magical books up my sleeve. I think it made her recognize that she might not have been adopted after all.

    My own switch-flipper was Little Women, which I won in a school library poster contest. In embarrassment, I stopped counting the re-reads after fifteen. For my hard-working, eternally busy maternal extended family, within which I was primarily raised, it was suspect to “have one’s nose always stuck in a book.” My quiet, book-struck father and I were forced to accept outsider status; we read both as an addiction and as an act of self-defense.

  4. What flipped the switch was the science fiction book, The Time of The Great Freeze. I took it out of the school library about 100 times I think. It took me outside of the little town we lived in and threw me into the future of ice, snow, people who were afraid to interact with one another who lived under the miles of snow and ice and made me think of something other than the everyday-ness of small town life.

    What of you?

  5. Thank you for the Gaiman story, which I’m going to carve out time for later. In the meantime, did you see this this year? I got a copy yesterday. I think you’d find it interesting.

  6. Nance: I love that story about your daughter.

    (We all make life choices and then generally learn to live with them, of course, so I can’t really complain about not having raised kids of my own. But stories like that one do give me second thoughts.)

    It sounds like you were something of an introspective kid. If so, I bet that, and the skills you developed because of it, really helped in your chosen profession. And yet it’s also very interesting that someone turned inward like that might have taken up a profession requiring them to turn outward, toward her clients. A little bit of psycho-social Cirque de Soleil going on there, methinks.

  7. cynth: I remember your talking about that book before. :) I never read it, though, so I don’t know the answer to this question: were the people living under all the snow and ice “small-town” or city people?

    (I’m looking forward eventually to reading Stephen King’s Under the Dome. In reading about it, I’ve wondered how differently it might play out if the dome had clamped down on a city instead of a small town.)

    Hard to say what the switch-flipper was for me. Actually, it might’ve been something by Dr. Seuss — To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, something like that. There was a bookstore in the next town which sold (I think) mostly used books, and I loved having enough money to go in there, especially for any of the Tom Swift Jr. titles.

    The first library book I ever took out more than once, I’m pretty sure, was Quentin Reynolds’s The Battle of Britain. Loved that book so much that within the last couple-three years I actually bought a used copy of it — the bookish boy’s equivalent of a girl’s favorite doll, which she scours eBay looking for now that she’s a half-century on.

  8. Jules: I don’t think I’d seen that book, but I do love that Gaiman “Instructions” piece. (Didn’t you once tell me about a short film of it which someone was making?)

    (Btw, as a reminder… Any of the MP3s I post here can be downloaded as well as listened to. Just click on the little right-square-bracket thing in the instructions which precede the audio-player widget. I don’t advertise that fact all the time — even most of it :) — and I may have skipped doing this a few times. But the option’s there, especially if the player isn’t working, or you need to put off a listen until later, etc.)

  9. Husband was reading Thuvia, Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs to our 8 year old when he was called out of town. Furious that I wouldn’t continue reading aloud to him he read it straight through to the end – tiny font, no pictures, 150 pages – just to prove a point. He’s never been without a book since.

    For me, there were the Bobbsey Twins and the blue cloth covered biographies of the childhood years of famous people and, of course, like Nance, Little Women. G’ma says I’ve always had a book in my hand.

    Thanks for this post, JES. Look for the shout-out in The Burrow tomorrow

  10. a/b: Luckily for the 8-year-old, Dad wasn’t reading the Encyclopedia Britannica to him!

    We had a couple of Bobbsey Twins books but I don’t remember anything about them — including whether or not I ever read them. I did read some Hardy Boys (until entering the Tom Swift Jr. phase). The Missus was big on Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden.

    Mom & Dad were both (in different ways, in different degrees) readers, but I don’t remember either of them ever reading to me. Maybe they figured it would be coals-to-Newcastle.

    (And thank you for the shout-out!)

  11. @John – You are welcome. And actually, the 8 year old’s favorite books were the red and gold bound World Books I bought from a door-to-door salesman in Chicago when he was 3. Honestly, a down-at-the-heels man rang my bell (his shoes really did need resoling) and I was hooked. My “A” volume still opens right to the airplane pictures.

  12. a/b: Oh, jeez — I used to love the World Book. Family legend says that when I was a boy sick with measles or mumps, something like that, I read the World Book in its entirety; but that’s not true. I may have read at most a single volume cover-to-cover, although no doubt I had multiple volumes scattered around on the bedclothes (for cross-reference purposes maybe, or just out of sheer delirium). A strange child.

    Had to love the multi-page printed-cellophane view of the human body’s interior.

  13. OMG I spent hours with those human body overlays as a child. I think that’s why I fell for the sales pitch and bought them for my kids. Britannica had small print and big ideas; World Book was much more accessible.

    I’m not surprised you were cross-referencing as a child…. you’re still doing it today :)

  14. Interesting that neither of us went into medicine — wonder how many other potential doctors and nurses the profession lost, thanks to the World Book? :)

    Cross-referencing, hmm. Maybe I— well, hmm.

Speak Your Mind