Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Historical Perspective On Books & Language

Books and Printing:
A Treasury for Typophiles
Edited by Paul A. Bennett

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.

The Power Of The Alphabet
Our transition from barbarism to civilization can be attributed to the alphabet.  Those great prehistoric discoveries and inventions such as the making of a fire, the use of tools, the wheel and the axle, and even our modern marvelous applications of steam and electricity pale into insignificance when compared with the power of the alphabet.  Simple as it now appears after the accustomed use of ages, it can be accounted not only the most difficult, but also the most fruitful of all the achievements of the human intellect.

Man lived by “bread alone” and without the alphabet untold ages, and with a practical alphabetic system not more than 3,000 years.  So important and wonderful was this step deemed by those who lived nearer the time of its inception – in the time before the wonder of its extraordinary powers had been blunted by long possession and common use – that its invention, as well as that of writing, was invariably attributed to divine origin.

Roman Links
We derived twenty-three of our letters from the Romans.  They had taken probably eighteen of these from the Greeks about the fourth century B.C. and afterwards borrowed elsewhere or invested seven more.  Instead of giving them names as the Greeks did, they simply called them by the sounds for which they stood:  A (ah) B (bay).  They introduced the curve wherever possible, whereas the early Greek letters were all angular – what an interesting analogy is evident in the architecture of those two peoples, the temple pediment and angularity of the Greeks as contrasted with the dome and arch of the Romans.
Borrowing From The Greeks
The Romans borrowed from the Greeks and the Greeks had borrowed from the Phoenicians, but where did the Phoenicians obtain their letters?  Did they invent them?  To what extent were these letters influenced by earlier systems of writings as those employed by the Cretan, Assyrian and Egyptian civilizations?  These are questions that probably will never be answered satisfactorily.  Many arguments and theories are advanced.  We can, however, trace back with certainty a number of our letters to the Phoenician alphabet of 1000 B.C.  Beyond this all is, at present, a matter of conjecture.

The Phoenician Alphabet
The Phoenician alphabet is also the parent of the Arabic, Indian, Javanese, Corean, Tibetan, Coptic syllabaries and alphabets.  No small country ever gave such a great gift to humanity; no large country could have given a greater gift.

The Power Of Reading
In North America and in Northwestern Europe, literacy is today a medical diagnosis.  That a person cannot read or write is now a sufficient criterion of mental defect; and this is so in a sense which would have been utterly false of Britain or the United States alike when Charles Dickens wrote an uncharitable record of his transatlantic itinerary.  Until the middle of the nineteenth century there was everywhere a large underprivileged class cut off from the possession of books and without the incentive to purchase reading matter…

Two or more letters joined together, or differing in design from the separate letters, and cast on one type-body, such as ct or ffi, are called a ligature.  There were two reasons for their being so cast, custom and convenience.

In the early fonts the great majority of the ligatures were due to custom alone and represented a following of scribal practice which commonly joined together certain pairs of letters.

Punctuation Marks
In quite early fonts this sign is used for the comma, or perhaps we should rather say to indicate any short pause in reading … The modern comma seems to have been introduced into England about 1521 (in roman type) and 1535 (in black letter).  It occurs in Venetian printing before 1500.

The query mark seems to have been used in England from about 1521.

The Book:
The Story of Printing and Bookmaking
by Douglas C. McMurtrie

High Standards For Book Design
The most cursory reflection will make it clear beyond doubt that books are a primary necessity of life in any civilized community.  Yet, while there is widespread appreciation of literature, that is, of the art of writing books, there is comparatively little popular appreciation of the art of bookmaking.  Nevertheless, the design of books is as much an art as architecture, or painting, or sculpture – and perhaps of more import to the population at large, in that it exerts an esthetic influence upon more people more frequently than any other art.  And the setting of type and the printing of books is as truly a craft susceptible of high standards as the craft of the weaver or potter or goldsmith.

By the fourth century A.D. parchment had become the dominant writing material in Europe.  It yielded slowly to the advantages of paper after that substance was first introduced, and it is still used occasionally for certain engrossed documents, such as diplomas – which are fittingly known as “sheepskins.”

Writing Materials
In all parts of the world men have used for writing material whatever was most available for the purpose.  Early Chinese writing, before the advent of paper, was done on silk or other textiles.  The Egyptians made not infrequent use of linen, and the ancient Romans kept some of their official records on strips of linen.  The Romans also used waxed tablets for personal correspondence and for records of business transactions and the like.  These tablets, of wood and sometimes of ivory, had slightly raised borders, the depression being coated with a thin layer of blackened wax.  A pointed stylus was used for tracing the letters in the wax, and the other end of the stylus was blunted and widened for making erasures by simply smoothing out the wax.  Two or three or more of these tablets were sometimes hinged together to make the prototypes of the pages of our books.

Where did this alphabet originate?
For the word “alphabet” is nothing more than the names of the first two letters, alpha, beta, in the alphabet of the ancient Greeks.  Following up this clue – first noting that many letters in the ancient Greek alphabet had true names, such as alpha, beta, gamma, delta, iota, kappa, lambda, and so on – we are next impressed by the fact that the letters of the Semitic alphabets (ancient Phoenician, ancient and modern Hebrew, Arabic, and others) also had names, and that the Semitic names (in Hebrew, aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, yod, kaph, lamed, and so on) have a striking similarity to the Greek names.  The conclusion seems inescapable that the ancient Greeks got the names of their letters, at least, from a Semitic source.

          Greek tradition, also, credits the Phoenicians with being the “inventors” of writing.  The accumulated evidence is convincing that at some remote time the inhabitants of various parts of the Greek world acquired the alphabet through contacts with the seafaring Phoenicians.

      We are speaking now of the Greek alphabet which became in time the ancestor of the Roman alphabet and thus of ours.

2.      In different parts of ancient Greece the alphabet developed along somewhat different lines.  For the Greeks, although of one race and speaking different dialects of the same language, were far from being a unit politically or culturally.  They were divided into a number of groups, each of small geographical extent, but with marked individualities – so marked, in fact, that the different groups found it hard to get along with one another.  It is not surprising, therefore, that no uniform use of the alphabet was established among them until a relatively late date.  Almost every Greek state had its own alphabet, at least ten of which can be distinguished by the shapes or functions of the letters.

The Codex Format
3    Books in the form with which we are familiar, made up of leaves bound together at the side, were a relatively late development in Europe and did not appear there for many centuries later than the papyrus or parchment rolls of the ancients.  Although occurring now and then at much earlier dates, this form of book did not begin to come into general use until about the fourth Christian century, when the jurists of the later Roman Empire found that it was more convenient than the roll for their lawbooks.  In the codex, as a book of this form was called, the parchment sheets, instead of being pasted end to end and then rolled up, were folded to make two leaves each, and collections, or gatherings, of these folded sheets were fastened together along their folds.

      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.

4.      Books in manuscript are still treasured in many a library as monuments of bygone ages.  But the slow-moving pen of the scribe has long since ceased to write.  The texts of ancient manuscripts, on which our cultural foundations are established, are now reproduced as needed in another way, and since the middle of the fifteenth century all the world’s wit and wisdom has taken form “without help of reed, stylus, or pen, but by the wondrous agreement, proportion, and harmony of punches and types.”

The Earliest Books
5.      In the history of the making of books, the beginning of printing in the Far East must be considered entirely independent of the origins and progress of printing in Europe, for in the Orient books were printed nearly six centuries earlier. Just as paper was first made there, so also the first printed books were produced in China.

      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.

6.      The earliest certain date of printing in China is A.D. 868, a century after the little printed Japanese charms of the Empress Shotoku.  But the evidence in this case is not a mere slip of printed paper, but a complete printed book and, what is more, a book with a woodcut frontispiece.

Printing With Movable Type
7    In the cultural history of mankind there is no event even approaching in importance the invention of printing with movable types.  It would require an extensive volume to set forth even in outline the far reaching effects of this invention in every field of human enterprise and experience, or to describe its results in the liberation of the human spirit from the fetters of ignorance and superstition.  The mighty power of the printed word to influence human thought and action, for good or ill, has seldom been more clearly shown than in our own day and age, when we see the governments of great nations enforcing a rigorous control or even suppression of the press as a necessary means of controlling the opinions and activities of their people.  Since printing has exerted so immense an influence upon the course of civilization, the question of who invented it becomes one of high historical interest and importance.

The Need For Books
          In our formula for a book to meet the needs and wishes of the average reader, beauty, grace, and verve were specified as plus values greatly to be desired after the purely functional demands have been met.  Certainly a degree of charm will make soundly planned books more attractive and pleasant to read and handle.  Functional considerations will prevent us from making bad books, but to make great books we must pass the boundary of negative rules and give rein to creative abilities.

Some extremists may urge that, since the purpose of books is to be read, any features which do not promote legibility are excrescences and tend to diminish rather than increase the merit of the book.  That a book unfitted to its purpose is wrong, and that an illegible book is pernicious, all will be ready to admit.  It is further true that a logically planned book, like a logically planned building, has in it many elements of beauty.  But these principles alone will not suffice to produce the best books of which we are capable.  Were they carried to their logical conclusion, we would never have an initial letter, a headband, a border, a decoration on a title page, a touch of color, or any of the gracious features which can contribute so largely to make a book charming.

Books as History:
The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts
Revised Edition

By David Pearson

          Why 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
      The physical impact of books can be experienced collectively as well as individually; a library is more than the sum of the words it contains.  Successful libraries, both old and new, combine functionality of access to resources with good working environments, to create a satisfying whole.  Universities and public authorities continue to build libraries and extensions to libraries, despite the growing impact of offsite digital access, not only because bookstock continues to expand but also because people express a desire for libraries s workspaces and places to meet.  Libraries offer a sense of connection with the past, and a connection with accumulated knowledge; people may remember the first day they visited their university library, or national library, impressed not only by the size and scale of the place but also by a feeling of privileged access to a major resource.

       Libraries can be aesthetically rewarding places, beyond their value as quarries for information.

3.     The Value of Printed Books
      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
Multiplicity, and uniform identity, are important concepts here; this is what the invention of printing brought about, the ability to mass produce lots of copies of a particular text, set in metal type and impressed onto paper, so that many readers can have the same thing all at once.  It is an important distinguishing feature between printed books and manuscript books, written by hand, which are obviously unique; even if the same scribe writes a text out twice, these are likely to be differences which are readily perceptible, and if two different scribes write it out, in separate places, the products will be distinctly individual.

Can a book be a book without words?

Enhancing the impact of the page and its text through decoration is a tradition going back many centuries; many medieval manuscripts were embellished with page borders and decorated initial letters.

The introduction of metal engraving from the 16th century onwards made it possible to create book illustrations with greater subtlety and detain than was typically possible with wood.

Emblem books became a popular format for a particular kind of juxtaposition of image and text during the 16th and 17th centuries: a text with a moral was much enhanced with a picture whose imagery helped to underscore the message.

Ninth Century Books
Medieval manuscripts, individually made, could be illustrated in color, a possibility that was beyond the capabilities of the handpress era as far as mass production was concerned.  Printed books before the nineteenth century were sometimes available with colored illustrations, but this depended on individual hand-coloring of plates originally printed in black and white (the Edelstein illustrated here is an example of this).  The nineteenth century saw this revolutionized with the invention of a series of new production methods which made it both possible and cost-effective to publish books with full color pictures.  The invention of photography, around the same time, soon led to the photographically illustrated book.  Book production techniques have evolved continuously since then to make book illustration simpler, cheaper, and more sophisticated, so that we now take for granted the wide range of juxtapositions of images and text with which we are so familiar.

The image of the book, symbolizing wisdom, worthwhile pursuits, and lasting achievement is familiar from all kinds of sources.

Books Beyond Texts
What do books offer us, beyond words, and how do their physical formats and design characteristics contribute to their overall impact?  Where do we draw the line between the book as a text and the book as an object, something which cannot be entirely replicated by transferring the content to another medium?

Status Of Books
8.      But the status of books as essential mediators in the process is likely to change, and this book will further explore and illustrate the ways in which they matter instead as objects, and as historical artifacts, beyond their initial purposes as containers and conveyers of texts.

The Value Of Authors
9.      We have a series of values in our minds about the relative worth of authors of the past, influenced by the standards of our own age and layers imposed by previous generations; if we wish to truly understand their impact and standing among their contemporaries, we should look at patterns of ownership and the ways in which books were treated.

Book Burning
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.

John Sutherland
A Little History of Literature

1.      Human beings are storytelling animals.  That goes as far back as we can trace our species.  If you think of fiction, do you think of novels?  Well, we did not start writing and reading novels until a fairly precise moment in literary history, in the eighteenth century.  We will come to that in the next chapter.  Before that moment, fiction took different forms.  If we dig, we can find what we might call some ‘proto-novels’ in literature before, in some cases long before, what we think of as the first novel.  Five European works of literature will make the point clearer.  They are not novels, but we feel a novel trying to get out in their narratives:

The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio, 1351, Italy)
Gargantua and Pantagruel (Francois Rabelais, 1532-64, France)
Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes, 1605-15, Spain)
The Pilgrim’s Progress (John Bunyan, 1678-84, England)
Oroonoko (Aphra Behn, 1688, England)

2.      The term ‘laureate’ refers back to ancient Greece and Rome, and means; crowned with laurel leaves.” The laureate won his (always his) leafy crown by verbal gladiatorial combat with other poets.  (Rappers, the bards of our day, still do this in freestyle battles.)

3.      The fight against the censorship of literature in the world continues, as every issue of the London-based journal, Index on Censorship, testifies.  It is a constant battle. Literature, literary history demonstrates, can do great things under oppression, in chains, or in exile.  It can even, like the phoenix, rise from the flames of its own destruction.  It is a glorious vindication of the human spirit that it can do so.

4.      As a general rule, adaptations of literature are driven by three motives.  The first is to exploit ‘a good thing’ – to make money by jumping on a bandwagon.  It is the profit motive, not artistic aspiration, which is often the driving force behind many TV series or, going back a century, the piratical dramatists who adapted Dickens’s fiction.  The second motive is to find and exploit new media markets or new readerships.  Anthony Trollope thought he was doing well if he sold 10,000 copies of his novels.  As adapted for television his fiction reaches, in the UK alone, audiences of 5 million and more.  Only in a very few cases can printed literature claim such figures.  J.K. Rowling sells in the millions.  Harry Potter films are seen by the hundreds of millions.  Adaptation creates the-sky’s-limit opportunities for literature.

The third motive is to explore, or develop, what is buried or missing in the original text.

5.      The bestseller list, if one thinks about it, does not merely chart sales, it stimulates them, setting in process a kind of ‘herd response’. You read a bestseller because everyone else is reading it.

6.      Victor Hugo published his story of prisoner 24601’s epic struggle with Inspector Javert, set against France’s never-ending political upheavals, in 1862.  It was initially published in French and ten other languages simultaneously.  As a global enterprise, Les Misérables was immensely and immediately successful.  Hugo’s novel was reportedly the most-read book by both armies in the American Civil War in 1861-65. Dramatic versions became staples on the stage, worldwide, for decades after Les Misérables has been filmed no less than twelve times.  In 1985 an unambitious musical stage version was premiered at the Barbican in London.  Despite poor reviews, it took off, and became what the official ‘Les Mis’ website describes as ‘the world’s longest-running musical’ – ‘Seen by more than 65 million people in 42 countries and in 22 different languages’.  At the 2013 Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles, the latest film version (of the 1985 musical) pulled in a creditable three awards.

7.      The biggest cash prize is splashed by the McArthur Foundation’s Genius Grants in the USA, giving lucky authors half a million dollars to spend as they please, just for being geniuses.  One thing all these prizes have in common is that they do not specify too closely what precise quality they are rewarding, or by what criteria they are judging.  Judges and committees have a free hand in deciding what they regard as the worthiest effort.

Before examining a few of the premier prizes, let’s ask some important questions.  Why has this happened, why now, and why do we need such awards?  A number of answers suggest themselves. The most convincing is that we live in an age of competition, where ‘winning’ is all-important.  Everyone, it is said, loves a horse race.  The prize system introduces the exciting ingredient of winners and losers into literature. It makes literature a kind of sports stadium, or gladiatorial arena.

8.      The third reason for the profusion of prizes is ‘signposting’ – giving readers some direction so we might better find our way through the ever more daunting profusion of literature available nowadays.  We desperately need guidance.

9.      Which, then, are the top literature prizes?  First in the list, as it was historically first, comes the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was set up in 1901.

10.  The French Prix Goncourt, founded in 1903, is the ‘purist’ of the prizes, from the point of view of literary criticism.  It was set up with an endowment by the eminent French man of letters, Edmond de Goncourt, whose high literary ideals it honors.

11.  America’s National Book Awards, nicknamed ‘Literature’s Oscars’ began in 1936 during the Great Depression as an initiative by publishers and the American Booksellers Association to stimulate interest and sales at a low time in their industries.

12.  No yawning at the annual ‘Booker evening’ every October.  What is now acknowledged as the world’s premier prize for fiction was set up in 1969 as the ‘English Goncourt’.  Unlike its cross-Channel ancestor, however, it gladly accepted the embrace of commerce and gave handsome cash prizes (and, with the publicity, the knock-on certainty of big sales). 

13.  Another twentieth-century novelty is the ever-expanding number of book and literary festivals which began in the period after the Second World War.  These events, large and small, bring together congregations of book lovers, and in their genteel way they have become the pop concerts of literature.  En masse, these fans make their preferences felt to authors, who meet their readers face to face, and to publishers, who pay very close attention to what is selling in the now traditional ‘book tent’.  Call it a meeting of minds.

14.  Even more recent is the explosive growth of local reading groups, in which like-minded book lovers get together to discuss a series of books they have chosen for themselves.  There is nothing overtly educational or self-improving about these groups.  There are no fees, no regulations – just a sharing of critical views on literature which is thought to be worth a read, and some lively discussion.  Again, minds meet – always a good thing where literature is concerned.

Reading groups have changed the way we talk about literature and have opened up new lines of communication between producers and consumers.

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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 2018©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource."

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