Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Historical Perspective Of Books

Humanity dates back more than a million years but signs of literate civilization only date back about 5,000 years ago, when the origins of books developed in the form of inscribed clay tablets in Mesopotamia and papyrus scrolls in ancient Egypt.  However, “we do not know how ‘the book’ began, any more than we know how writing or language started,” says author David Diringer in his 1953 book, The Book Before Printing:  Ancient, Medieval, and Oriental.”

The early years of writing developed simultaneously in different regions of the world.  Parchment, wood, leather, clay tablets, stone, linen, and thin parts of tree bark were used.  Diringer says “only the Egyptian papyrus book can be considered the true ancestor of the modern book.”

Some scholars believe Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was created about 5,000 years ago.  They also credit Egyptians with inventing the short story.

Diringer believes parchment was the most beautiful and suitable material for writing or printing upon that was ever used, noting “its surface being singularly even and offering little or no resistance to the pen so that every sort of handwriting can be made upon it with equal ease.”

The history behind the alphabet, writing, and printing books is quite interesting and lengthy.  Things didn’t happen overnight.  But no doubt, the book itself is a significant invention that has helped create new inventions, movements, and philosophies.

Diringer writes:  “The history of ‘the book,’ even more than the history of mankind and the history of language, begins with the history of writing.  Only when history began to be recorded, when the historical events, the traditions, customs, laws, religious myths and rituals and the formerly memorized ‘works’ of literature could be, put down in writing, were they enshrined into ‘books’ to be prisoned in the libraries of temples and royal palaces.  The history of the book must obviously take into account the history of writing.”

The writing of scrolls and transcription of them had their challenges, aside from the obvious cost and time to reproduce them.  There were errors in transcription.  Sometimes the copyist confused words or letters.  Other times they were just careless and missed a word or line.  Some even intentionally tampered with what they copied, substituting, eliminating, or altering text portions.

For centuries, words were not separated.  Paragraphs also were not merely separated by a line of space.  Spellings changed over time.  Certain words or terms grew out of favor while others came into existence.  I wonder, what will change with language or books down the road?

It is to be noted that for the few surviving sheets of written upon parchment and papyrus that survived today, many thousands were destroyed or lost forever.  The ravages of time, from fire and flood, to intentional destruction due to politics, religion, or war have taken a significant toll on the written record of society.  What exists is but a distorted fragment of ages past.

Many of the earlier writings were done by the wealthy, the military and ruling class, and religious houses.  Much of what remains of the distant past is steeped in the sacred rather than the secular.

Another book that I came across, Books and Printing:  A Treasury for Typophiles, edited by Paul A. Bennett in 1951, features a collection of essays on the topic of bookmaking.  One of the essays talked about book collecting, written by Anne Lyon Haight, and though it seems representative of the mindset from 66 years ago, it make an interesting point:

“It would appear that book collecting is a truly feminine pastime, containing many elements which appeal to their sex; romance, intellectual curiosity, love of the beautiful and the quest of something difficult to obtain.  But feminine collectors should beware of pitfalls, for sometimes this mania arouses the baser instincts such as envy, extravagance and self-indulgence.  Wives have even been known to spend their marketing money on books instead of daily bread, and to waste hours reading book catalogues instead of attending to their housewifely duties.  Book collecting, however, is a common denominator of all ages and a medium through which the minds of both sexes may meet with pleasure and therefore greatly to be recommended as a delightful occupation.”

I conclude with an excerpt from another essay in that book, penned by Porter Garnett, about the notion of an ideal book:

“There is no such thing nor can there be such a thing as “the ideal book.”  No single book, no particular style of book can be said to represent in itself an ideal below which all other books and other styles which differ from it fall.  A certain book may be ideal for its purpose, but books can no more conform to a fixed ideal than can churches, cocktail-shakers, or hats.  The best that one can do is to attempt to enumerate and codify those elements of good bookmaking that enter into what may be called the “fine” book.

"It is difficult to declare oneself an advocate or exponent of fine printing or fine book-design without being misunderstood.   Such a declaration, however, is not to arrogate superiority.  It merely means that one believes in certain principles of craftsmanship and in upholding certain standards based upon a scrupulous and uncompromising observance of refinements and minutiae.”

All-New 2017 Book Marketing & PR Toolkit 

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2017©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby 

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