02 March 2010

From Codex to App

Last night at one of my writers’ groups we were all scrunched around a smartphone looking at the digital version of one member’s reissued picture book: Peterkin Meets a Star, by Emilie Boon (also available via iTunes).

Someone asked what we should call this form. It’s a smartphone “app,” and yet Emilie’s creation as author-illustrator is the content, not the software application that makes the pages flip or the sound. So should we call it a “book that runs on an app”?

Peterkin Meets a Star’s first published form was, technologically, a codex. That method of storing information, developed in the late Roman Empire, consists of thin pieces of material bound together along one side with pictures and symbols inked onto each flat surface. One takes in the information by flipping from one piece of material to the next.

The codex was a big improvement over the scroll, and has been so useful for such a long time that the form became synonymous with a ”book,” the term we also use for the information itself. But now we’re seeing the content of books made available in non-codex forms.

At first these new forms were made to resemble codices, as in how audiobooks on tape or CDs were packaged, and how the first electronic book readers are designed. But now books in audio and visual (and in Peterkin’s case, audiovisual) format are available with no physical existence at all above the molecular level. They’re no longer hardware, so the term “app” becomes a little more appropriate.

I suspect it will take a while for our terminology to settle down, and the result will depend on the habits we pick up as much as strict logic. (See the precedents of novel, cartoon, comic, graphic novel, reality show, etc.)

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