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Where Or When Does A Book Begin

A photograph of a book sat on an opened book-sized envelope

“Where – or when – does a literary text begin?”

The above quotation from the first chapter of An Introduction To Literature, Criticism and Theory by Nicholas Royle and Andrew Bennett, is something that’s often mused upon in articles but not always so… bluntly. Certainly it’s a question that’s asked in so many words, but more often it’s an idea in itself, a thought that gets banded around when people talk of authors and readers seeing things differently and believing that particular aspects of books should be shown or written in particular ways.

I think there’s at least three stages of the book process – rather than the writing process to consider: the forming of the idea, writing the text, and the reader’s reading of it (which in this case is largely focused on the experience rather than the exercise).

The forming of the idea is perhaps the most exclusive part of the process. Until or unless the writer decides to share their thoughts at this stage, it belongs solely to them with no outsider influence. (I say ‘belongs’ in the context of the experience of a text, where each reading of a book and the resulting thoughts or imaginings and so forth belong to that reader.) A text does in effect begin here, with the thought, but there’s obviously no physical evidence of it and everything about it can be shared or withheld as the writer sees fit, so few would know the entirety of it. At most, in terms of a concrete beginning, we’re dealing with content akin to quotations, extracts. But for the author it is the beginning. Perhaps it’s also the beginning for fans, when news of a work in progress is shared.

However once the book has been out a few years focus largely remains on it rather than its development, meaning that it could be said that there’s a time when the idea is the beginning and then a longer time when it is not.

With the writing, it depends on your view. From the author’s point and likely their editor or friends and family, the text has begun. It’s always in mind, it’s discussed, likely a lot. There’s that interesting division of beginning and ending, where the author celebrates the launch of a book and the ending of all the hard work, and the readers celebrate the launch and the beginning of their journey into the pages. If the author has chronicled the writing process on a blog or in newspaper/magazine articles, the book may begin for readers there; some fans may view the very first mention of the book as the beginning of it.

In terms, of course, of generality, it could be said a text begins when readers start reading it. This is when the discussion between author and reader starts happening, when an unlimited number of interpretations and imaginations occur, creating new thoughts and visual imagery than the one that up to now has most if not solely been just the author’s own. If we view a book’s success by how many sales it makes, how much discussion there is about it, then there is surely a strong case to be made that the book’s release date is the date the book begins.

It’s a sliding scale of access, if you will, ever more branches of a tree that starts with the author, extends to their publishers and friends, and becomes impossible to quantity after publication.

Perhaps it’s simply individual – where does a text begin for you, whether you’re the author or reader (more likely in this case, the reader, because I think it’s fair to say an author will consider planning and the moment of the idea as the beginning)? So many different opinions… it would be impossible to state a definite time because all three periods of time are valid. For me it has a lot to do with the discussion around the book – whether the book is part of a series and therefore discussion happens long before the release date (or in the case of Philip Pullman’s The Book Of Dust, the book’s been alive for 20 years…). If there’s hype, then actually holding the book in your hands can feel like the middle of the overall story, where the hype is the beginning and the final page the end. Books I haven’t heard about or for which there’s been less discussion, that first page is it. If there’s not much information about the author’s writing progress with the book, the idea of its existence is very much that, an idea rather than any true beginning.

What do you think – when does a book begin for you?


Jeanne H. Griggs

October 18, 2017, 1:06 pm

Twisting this in a slightly different direction, when I read anything that might be satiric, it begins with any prefatory materials. These days, that can include articles written about it. The Handmaid’s Tale, for example.

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