What is a Book? An Ecological Account

James Gibson’s theory of affordances suggests that what animals perceive in their environment is not so much the properties of individual objects but rather the possibilities for action they enable. There’s a sense here that what things are and what things mean show up for the animal at the same time. On Gibson’s view, an ecological niche is thus best understood as a set of affordances made available by an animal’s capacities. For example, a niche may afford climbing, sheltering, swimming, running, standing, eating, and so on.

Gibson notes that there’s a tight link between animal and niche, where the abilities of the animal and the properties of the niche mutually act to constrain the set of available affordances. In the case of humans, Gibson observes, the situation is a bit different in that we actively engage in the planned construction of our own affordance landscapes. (Had Gibson been alive today he no doubt would have paid greater attention to the niche-constructing actions of all organisms.) We can see a gymnasium as affording fitness, a town square as affording meeting, a library as affording reading, for example. 

I think we can take Gibson’s general examples of affordance-providing environments a step further and ask, what is a book? At the level of its constituent materials a book is just so much ink, paper, glue, and binding. But listing materials hardly captures the experience of reading, or the understanding that can come from it. In Gibson’s terms, listing what a book is made of captures only its material properties and not what those properties afford or make possible. So, what from this ecological perspective is a book? One answer is that a book is a set of detailed affordances arranged on purpose to make available to the reader a certain kind of understanding.

That sounds a bit dry, but think of it this way. I’ve said that books provide a very detailed and intentional set of affordances for a certain kind of understanding, affordances that are shaped—line by line, curve by curve, letter by letter, space by space, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter—with the intention of being used, that is, understood, by the reader. Typography and bookmaking are from this perspective intricate material practices for the installment of conversions in apprehension, for the reshaping of awareness through the mode of discursive engagement. Consider in this context these words from Robert Bringhurst’s excellent The Elements of Typographic Style

Typography is the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form, and thus with an independent existence. . . . As a craft, typography shares a long common boundary and many common concerns with writing and editing on the one side and with graphic design on the other; yet typography itself belongs to neither (11). . . . Typography is just that: idealized writing. Writers themselves now rarely have the calligraphic skill of earlier scribes, but they evoke countless versions of ideal script by their varying voices and literary styles. To these blind and often invisible visions, the typographer must respond in visible terms. . . . Simple as it may sound, the task of creative non-interference with letters is a rewarding and difficult calling. In ideal conditions, it is all that typographers are really asked to do—and it is enough (19).

I recommend taking a look at Bringhurst’s book if ever you get the chance. The level of detail with which he approaches the craft of typography is astounding. Now, if we take onboard this deep sense of skill involved in letter making, then the extent to which typographers and writers construct very detailed ecologies of affordance really comes to the fore. It is from this perspective that I’d say books do not contain knowledge or concepts or accounts or stories, but rather a complex set of micro-affordances carefully designed and crafted with the expressed purpose of allowing the engaged reader the possibility of rendering for him or herself a new arrangement of understanding and participation, a possibility—far from a guarantee, but a possibility nonetheless—of putting these affordances to work internally, as participant in future moments of experience, as new availabilities for insight and judgement.

Stated in another way, just as an exposed mountain face does not contain “climbing,” a book does not contain “knowledge” or “know-how” or anything similar. Rather, the book, like the mountain face, offers up, to the adept, a series of contours and features that enable the climber to climb and the reader to read. Books are things we think with and through rather than storehouses we download from. The art of writing, then, is the intentional creation of affordances that make such transformations of experience possible. The book is the environment in which such affordances can endure. The key here is that these affordances are grounded in the reader’s knowledge and abilities. To put this in Alva Noë’s terms, the ground of access to anything is always one’s own know-how, one’s own ability to perceive affordances in the environment.

We might think of art objects or contemplative tools in the same way—as instruments for the delivery of specific affordances—but that’s another story.


  1. some fragments of a couple of emails i sent recently after attending a lit-crit lecture on poetry:
    one speaker declared that poems weren’t just vehicles for ideas but instead where enacting their own ideas, and i though he’s right that poems aren’t (shouldn’t be?) just illustrations for concepts that preexist in some other way but it also seems wrong to me to say that they enact (or bear or have) ideas of their own but rather i think that they are assemblages/scores of marks that cue responses in readers (including the writer who is the first reader as the one making the marks)…thanks my sense is that what gets written down is more like a musical score than a recording,reminds me i have to go back and look again at donald davidson on metaphors as there is something inchoate that drives and shapes the writing process but doesn’t contain it,
    so when i write something down and judge it to be right for the piece i’m not comparing to some un-conscious version of it somewhere in my neurology but noting its effects which than play a part in what does or does not work with what follows or perhaps signals an end to the process.
    also the score idea gives us ways of understanding how playing/hacking grammar, rhythm, and spacing and all can spur multiple readings, as can a duck/rabbit image, the cues play on our habits/expectations but don’t give them enough for there to be just one response or prose or something finished in an old-fashioned sense of being complete


  2. This sounds right to me. And I dig the comparison to musical notation and the idea that the writer is the first reader. It’s a good way of looking at it.


    • good i think it has the advantage of pointing to the skills needed by the users/instrument-alists to be-come music and hopefully also has resonances of interpretations/improvisations/conducting/etc.
      thanks for writing these matters up bit and pieces of gibson and all forever percolating thru me but i lack the writing skills you possess, the enviro/infrastructure-affordances piece is key (as what generally is taken for granted and so not accounted for) but there is something else ( I gesture towards above in reference to davidson) that is perhaps more vital is the drives/processes that aren’t calculable/predictable (or even really preventable/reducible/deductable after the fact to genealogical accounts) , aren’t some kind of arche-writing or the like (not pace tmorton and maybe deleuze from the future) , not poetic dwelling in heidegger’s neo-kantian archive-fever bookish sense but rather some proto-typing instrumentalist capacity for bricolage in service of some driven process (not end), sorry if that’s not much more than a pile of bit and pieces, written words fail, we really should skype someday.
      ps do you have a key to unlock: http://epd.sagepub.com/content/22/1/175.short


  3. ugh sorry meant to type predictable not preventable above, my tiwsted relationship with spell-checker…


  4. I enjoyed waking up to this, and have been thinking about affordances all day. I just taught a class on relics and prayer books thinking about books and pictures and poetry and the materiality of relics and the forms of expertise that deliver their reality to us. It is like a puzzle. What is the object, really? What is afforded by the Ghent altarpiece (http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be/#home/sub=open) for example is not contained in the materials or the represented forms; not contained in the details of gems, the lamb in the centre or peaceful expressions on the faces, not the luminous colors or the grisaille on the back, none of that, but it evokes something in you contemplating it, and its reality is in that evocation –not in the painting itself. Though it couldn’t happen without the painting. So too the poem lives in me, I carry around bits of poem in me like relics (“like a body, wholly body, fluttering/ its empty sleeves”). But the poem is not those words; the real poem is rather how the words move at a given moment of their evocation and fit to whatever the body and the garment may be at that moment, so the event created by these words in me thus turns me inside out. And it was made to do that. It is not the words, but needs them for release. As holy power moves through the faithful, because of the relic. As the Ghent altarpiece turns inside out the Christian dispensation to make it fit in so small a compass that it can sit on an altar. And yet you can walk around inside it for hours. Environments, yes. Nice post.


  5. I’ve thought about your excellent post a lot, but I’ve been ambivalent about engaging you in discussion about it. You could say that, for me, the post unequivocally affords thinking whereas the interpersonal communicative affordances are more ambivalent.

    These are two interrelated ecologies in play here: an intellectual ecology concerned with environments, niches, perceptions, properties, and so on; and an ecology of writer and reader. You’ve emphasized the latter ecology: books are arrays of affordances arranged purposely by the writer to engage the reader. But as you also point out, “books are things we think with and through.” Books are about something; the text directs the attention of both writer and reader toward that thing. As writer, you can and perhaps should devote at least some effort to making it easier for the reader to follow your pointing finger. But to a considerable extent your writing takes shape within the ecosystem toward which you point: its contours, forces, arrays, traversals. As Vygotsky wrote: “Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them.” It becomes incumbent on me as reader to line my attention up with your pointing finger, to see what you see, to immerse myself in that ecosystem, even if it’s an alien world to me.

    These aren’t just abstract considerations for me. Am I a purist, writing what I see in the expectation that maybe somebody will want to see it too? Or do I simply lack the knack of crafting readerly affordances? Here’s some navel-gazing I did about writing a few months back:

    What I say is shaped by the multivalent affordances to which I am attuned. I am aware of some of the affordances but not all, not even most of them. If I’m aware I can select words pointing to those affordances. If I’m not aware, which is most of the time, the affordances in effect choose the words for me. It’s not just my unconscious speaking; it’s the world speaking in and through me, an ecological interaction between me and the world, coming out of my mouth. Rarely do I select verbal affordances with the intention of affecting the person I’m talking to. That’s true in part because, in my experience, I am unsuccessful in doing so. I exert no rhetorical force, no verbal allure that moves people in directions that I choose. Instead, I say what moves me, expecting that it will move them – that the affordances pushing and pulling me would similarly push and pull anyone, or at least anyone worth talking to. Apparently I seem to believe that I am “like” others in my responses to the worlds in which I am immersed. I’m always surprised when this turns out not to be the case. Usually I find this ecological mismatch alienating rather than exhilarating. Others are opaque to me, and seemingly I am opaque to them.

    The same is true when I write. I’m not particularly observant; my memory is poor; I lack empathy and insight into other people; my self-awareness is suspect. What’s left? I’m not sure, but when I sink into a ficticity I can fill a lot of pages. I write what I imagine, and what I imagine is pulled and pushed by the affordances generated by the imaginary unrealities that I’m simultaneously exploring and creating. I write what grabs my attention; what I write points to the affordances that are pointing to me. To some extent I can groom the slopes, craft prose that points at imaginary affordances reaching my conscious awareness. The imaginary affordances that remain below the threshold of awareness still call my attention and shape my written descriptions, but in ways that aren’t subject to rhetorical craft. I expect readers to be able to follow the words back to the affordances at which they point and to be moved by them without my having to exert any persuasive force. The ficticity itself should be enough to grab them. When it’s not I feel alienated, isolated, impotent. I experience the sort of get-different that manifests itself by leaving others indifferent. The affordances that move me aren’t pointing at them, aren’t reaching them, aren’t speaking to them, aren’t luring them into the same void that’s taking shape around me.

    So it turns out that your post triggered interpersonal reader-response affordances in me after all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comments, John. I think part of what your identifying here has to do with the fact that blogs can afford reading well enough but comments sections often don’t afford real dialogue.


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