The following excerpts are from several books. Each will provide a unique and informed perspective on the history of books, and, to a degree, language.
We are speaking now of the Greek alphabet which became in time the ancestor of the Roman alphabet and thus of ours.
The Codex Format
The Christian church, as well as the jurists, had much to do with making the codex popular. The old volume, or roll, was associated with the literary works of a pagan culture which the early church fathers sought to supplant. Thus the writings of Christian authors were thought to be more appropriately presented in the codex form. But strangely enough, it is the old pagan volume which survives in our word “volume,” while we use the words “codex” and “code” only in specialized meanings.
The Earliest Books
Those earliest books were block books that is, books printed from wooden blocks on which text and illustrations had been engraved. But movable type were also made in China long before Gutenberg’s epochal invention. They would undoubtedly have been invented even earlier had they been suitable for the printed reproduction of the Chinese written language. But because of the vast number of separate characters required for writing the Chinese language, movable types offered no great advantage. Even after they had been invented they eventually fell into disuse, because it was easier to engrave on wood a page of the ideographic symbols than it was to compose a page with types for the separate characters.
In Europe, with its alphabetically written languages, the invention of printing, to all intents and purposes, consisted in the invention of a satisfactory process for making any desired quantity of movable types. In China, however, the invention of printing as a practical method of making books consisted in the invention of block printing.
Printing With Movable Type
The Need For Books
The essential theme of this book – that books may be interesting, historically insignificant objects, above and beyond their textual content – is a valid thesis in its own right, but it is a particularly important one at a time when the world of books is undergoing the major changes.
The coming changes will affect not only the ways in which we transmit and read the kind of information which was traditionally contained in books, but also our whole framework of values around them. They will affect our relationships with books individually, and collectively in libraries. There will be choices to be made over the preservation of our existing printed heritage: what is worth saving, and why, if texts are readily available in other ways? What is it about a book that makes it worth cataloguing and storing, or makes it worth adding to a private or institutional collection?
The Collective Value of Libraries
Libraries can be aesthetically rewarding places, beyond their value as quarries for information.
Books, down the ages, have not been lifeless intermediaries in between authors and readers; their physical reality has been fully exploited for the opportunity for interaction between texts and their recipients. Here is a real difference between the world of books and the world of cybertexts, where the latter is the poorer. A book can be written in, defaced, altered, beautified or cherished, to produce a preservable object with an individual history. A true e-book, or a computer which is used to display texts garnered from a web-accessible databank, does not have those qualities. Someone reading this text, as a book, may scribble comments in the margins, or put it in a new binding, and create an object with qualities of lasting individuality which the PC on which it was written will never have.
The Earliest Printers
When printing was invented in the fifteenth century paper was well established as a medium for handwritten books and documents and it was the natural choice for mass production, but vellum (specially dried calfskin) was the preferred option for high quality, permanent texts. The earliest printers therefore often ran off a number of copies of their books printed on vellum as well as paper, to offer purchasers a choice and a luxury option; the typesetting would be exactly the same and the paper copies would normally constitute the bulk of the edition. This tradition goes back to the very beginning of printing (the first printed book, the Gutenberg Bible, was issued on vellum as well as on paper), and continued throughout the handpress era. The use of vellum as the material for luxury copies became less common after the early sixteenth century, though it never quite died out and there are examples of eighteenth – and nineteenth-century books with a vellum issue. What became much more common was the idea of offering a choice based on paper, with sheets of an edition run off on different qualities of paper of varying thickness or whiteness.
Individuality Within Mass Production
Ninth Century Books
The image of the book, symbolizing wisdom, worthwhile pursuits, and lasting achievement is familiar from all kinds of sources.
Books Beyond Texts
Status Of Books
The Value Of Authors
The first Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, is remembered not only for the Great Wall of China and the terracotta army, but also as the first great ruler to try to control the thinking of his people by burning books. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has entered the canon of classic 20th century fiction for its portrayal of a society in which the reading or keeping of books is a crime, and in which firemen are employed to burn books.
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