By CATHARINE MORRIS
What is a book? Margaret Atwood was in characteristically deadpan form as she set about answering that question at Lillehammer University College; as I have already mentioned, she was speaking in honour of the Nobel Prize-winning writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and her twinklingly helpless pronunciation of his name raised not just a laugh but a round of applause.
Her lecture was in part a tour of the writing and publishing technologies she has used in her time. She was an early adopter of the personal computer (“I had to store the text of my novel on floppy disks – remember those? They weren’t floppy. They were square. [You could store] only a couple of chapters per disk, and the disks . . . got stuck inside the computer and had to be prised loose with hair pins and paper clips”). In recent years she has experimented with online publishing platforms such as Byliner, on which writers can publish their works a chapter at a time. In the case of the novel saved on disks, was the book, she asked, the stack of disks? Or was it the text that was stored on them? Or was it the codex book that appeared later with the type set for it? And in the case of the novel she started on Byliner (she was asked why she wasn’t writing a “real book”, so she took her four Byliner posts and went back to more traditional methods), was the book the first four episodes? Or was it the longer book? Or were they two different books?