by Quentin Long
©2008 Quentin Long
The book has to be one of humankinds greatest inventions. It can be built with comparatively primitive technology; it can preserve and organize an arbitrarily large amount of information; and to access the information in a book, the only infrastructure required is enough light to see by. That last quality, in particular, is a big part of why a boring, old-fashioned, ink-on-paper physical artifact like the book is still around in todays (electronified, cybernetic, hyperlinked) culture.
However! Just because the book is so well-suited for human beings, that doesnt mean its equally well-suited for any other species. So its worth pondering the question of what sort of book-analogues, if any, might be in use among non-human sentients. I say if any because its entirely possible that some species might have come up with the idea in the first place. Considering that we humans didnt even invent the book until several millennia after we had written language, it should be clear that theres nothing obvious or inevitable about this book thingie, right?
So lets take a look at what sort of preconditions have to be in place before you can develop the book.
First off, you need sentience or at least, any species which is a candidate for developing a book-analogue needs to be sentient. I trust I dont need to explain myself further here?
Second, you need language; that is, you need a means of communication which uses arbitrary symbols to convey messages to someone else. But more than that, you need recorded languagephysical representations of those arbitrary symbols youre using to convey messages. One could argue that this is a redundant qualification, on the grounds that any language-using species must be sentient but seeing as how bees use specific dance-movements to communicate the position and direction of pollen sources, I figured it couldnt hurt to treat sentience and language use as two distinct things. Moving right along: We humans use vision-dependent recordings (i.e., the written word), but other senses might well servetouch/texture, for instance.
The third thing a species of would-be book-creators needs, is some way of manipulating its environment. After all, if you dont have such a capability, how are you going to build anything at all, let alone a book? In the case of humankind, our hands definitely qualify; for other species, things like talons or tentacles or a prehensile tail might serve.
Is anything else necessary for a species to develop a book-analogue? Yes. The fourth necessity is that the species must have a decently large population of individuals who can comprehend recorded language. Consider that while us humans have had written language for several millennia, the book has only existed in a recognizeably modern form for a few centuries. Why? Well, its unlikely that any one factor is sufficient to explain that mystery, but a good chunk of the answer, it seems to me, is that literacy just wasnt very common back in the day. Scribes, priests, and the occasional nobleman could read; everybody else, fuggeddaboutit. This worked as long as nobody else needed to read but with the rise of the merchant class came an accompanying rise in the total population of literate individuals.
Now that the background is established, we can chew over the interesting part: Namely, how might books differ from one species to another?
For any species whose physical capabilities are comparable to those of humankindi.e., their vision is about the same as ours, theyve got hands like ours, etcits a darned good bet that their books will be pretty much the same as ours. Sure, some of the details could be different; theres no way to predict whether their books should be read back-to-front (like Japanese books) or front-to-back (like Western books), nor can we predict whether their bindings will go on the right, left, top, or bottom edge (assuming they use rectangular sheets, which is not necessarily a given!). All of which said, we humans would almost certainly be able to recognize their books as books.
Things get more interesting when you consider species whose physical capabilities are significantly different from ours. The biggest question mark, in this context, is the other species sensory capabilities.
As an example, consider a species which evolved in a chronically ill-lit environmenttheir worlds skies are perpetually overcast, or they arose in a lightless cavern, or whatever other scenarioand as a result, these guys depend on sound (i.e., echolocation) in much the same way as us humans depend on light. What sort of books would they come up with?
At first blush, it might seem that they couldnt come up with any kind of books at all, on the grounds that whatever level of technology they had at that stage in their development would be insufficient to allow sound-recording. But we humans couldnt record light back when we invented written language, so why should an inability to record sound obstruct a sound-using species from developing sonic writing? All our hypothetical sound-users would really need, is the ability to create sound in a reliable manner! If they can carve blocks of wood (or metal, or whatever) into precise shapes that make particular sounds when tapped, theyre good to go. Another possibility is that they might carve short, parallel notches into a hard surface, and read this writing by stroking the notches with the end of a stick.
Could we humans recognize these sound-based books as examples of recorded language? Maybe, maybe not. I suspect wed be a lot more likely to identify that kind of book as a musical instrument of some sortwhich is exactly what the thing is, if you think about it. It sure would be helpful if we could consult a member of the species which created these books
Moving right along, its entirely possible that a touch-based species could invent their own kind of bookall the more so because we vision-based humans have our own touch-based system of writing! I refer to Braille, of course. Bumps on a page is only the most obvious possibility; a system of writing created by a truly touch-based species might well incorporate textures (i.e., smooth, rough, ribbed, gridded, etc) in a far more sophisticated way. For smaller documents, texture-patches on a rock (comfortably sized to fit in the hand) might serve; for longer ones, an artifact with a closer resemblance to the standard human book is a distinct possibility.
And then theres smell-based and taste-based species but those senses are decidedly poor candidates for any species Most Valuable Sensory Modality. Its hard to imagine an environment in which acute taste would be more generally useful than acute vision or hearing, you know? More relevant to the topic at hand, would such an environment allow for the development of sentience in whatever critters live there? Perhaps some über-entity deliberately created a smell- or taste-based sentient species, for whatever ineffable reason(s) of its own; otherwise, I think those two possibilities can be safely ignored.
Sight, sound, and touch: If youre looking for a dominant sense for a species which had developed its own book-analogue, these three are the way to bet.