Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Book Is Alive And Well

I recently read The Book:  A Cover-To-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, by Keith Houston.  It’s all about the printed book, the ones that have mass and fill out a bookcase.  It’s about the best format a book can take – greater than e-books, clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, or wax writing boards.

While praising the printed book as the “world’s most important form of written record,” it notes it faces an unknown future:  “Just as paper superseded parchment, immovable type put scribes out of a job, and the codex, or paged book, overtook the papyrus scrolls, so competitors and electronic books threaten the very existence of the physical book.”

It speaks of the e-book’s appeal -- cheap, convenient, weightless, up-to-date -- and says “It takes a strong will to resist the lure of the e-book.”

Resist, we must.

I love physical books and they deserve to be with us forever.  But in order for this to happen, they will either co-exist with digital books or they will have to squash the e-book.  Right now print still dominates, thankfully, but who knows for how long.

To support the printed book, a book like Houston’s is needed, providing historical support for the beauty of paper-filled tomes.

Papyrus had a 3,000-year run as a writing material.  Eventually that got replaced – and perhaps like it, printed books will one day be supplanted by their digital counterpart.

Parchment, invented by King Eumenes II of Pergamon, a ruler of a Greek city-state around 200 B.C., replaced papyrus.  And other resources would come to be used to write and print on but in the end, paper has won out.  Interestingly, in the age of email, digital books, and websites, our dependence on paper has grown, not lessened.

Houston notes:  “World consumption of paper has doubled since 1980, with each resident of the U.S.A. consuming the equivalent of 5.57 forty-foot trees in 2012.  That is to say, an average American gets through almost 500 pounds of paper in a year.”

The book talked about mass deacidification and how in the 1930s, “it was discovered that wood-pulp paper slowly, inexorably disintegrates even without the presence of excess bleach or acidilignin, a complex molecule found abundantly in wood, reacts to ultraviolet light to destroy the cellulose that binds paper together.  In the 1980s, when the Library of Congress first tackled the issue of brittle books, it estimated that 25 percent of books owned by large American research libraries – 75 million volumes in all – would crumble to dust if handled.  A slow fire was consuming books across the world and something had to be done.”

The book is a fascinating read, especially for philologists (who study the development of language) and those who love to learn about the written word.  Below are some random excerpts that may be of appeal to you:

The Birth of Writing
Modern day linguists think that the idea of writing-that visual signs could be used to represent spoken words, sounds or concepts – came to Egypt from nearby Sumer, in what is now northeastern Iraq.

3000 B.C. The Scroll
The Egyptians invented something else, too, during that frantic period at the dawn of writing.  To borrow the Oxford English Dictionary’s words on the subject, Egypt’s scribes had figured out how to combine individual sheets of papyrus to make “portable volume[s] consisting of a series of written, printed, or illustrated pages bound together for ease of reading”;  they had invented the book, in other words, in the form of the papyrus scroll.  As evidenced by the papyri preserved Egypt’s arid climate, and as described in Pliny’s second-century buyer’s guide, the books of the ancient world were made from long series of papyrus sheets trimmed to matching heights and pasted together, to be rolled up for storage and unrolled for reading.  What we do not know, however, is why the scroll ever came about in the first place.

The Scribe
Whether or not a scribe understood a word of the text he was copying, progress was slow and methodical.  Each letter was constructed stroke by stroke in iron gall ink, and a conscientious scribe would pause to sharpen his quill tens of times each day to maintain an even line.  The penknife with which he did that, in fact, was every bit as important as his pen: with it, he could prick holes for guidelines; scrape off a mistake before its ink soaked into the page; or hold springy parchment flat so as to write upon it more easily.  At the end of all this he would have picked up the completed page, cast an expert eye over its neatly ruled lines and disciplined text, and then passed it on to a colleague practiced in the graphic arts.

The Illuminated Manuscript
The writing of books evolved in fits and starts.  If we could plat a line tracing that history, it would be punctuated with abrupt spikes announcing the invention of hieroglyphs, papyrus, movable type, and any one of a hundred other innovations, large and small.  The story of book illustration is a similar one, and one of the key inflection points on our hypothetical graph – a skyrocketing discontinuity that dwarfs what come before and paved the way for what followed-marks the arrival, in medieval times, of the illuminated manuscript.

Like papermaking, movable type, and woodcut printing, book-binding was not a craft disposed to great inventive leaps.  Occasionally, a bookbinder was moved to experiment with some radical alteration to the basic formula of the book – two books bound to a single wooden covering board, for instance, or a series of books concertinaed together like an unholy orihon but with the adoption of double-cord binding, the form of the book was effectively standardized.  From the time of the St. Cuthbert Gospel, the Ragyndrudis Codex, and their medieval ilk, through to the encyclopedias Britannica and Webster’s dictionaries that lined nineteenth-century bookshelves, the evolution of the book was a gentle one, borne onward on a tide of tinkering, refinements, and changes in material.

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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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