Monday, June 11, 2018

Have You Read The Book on the Bookshelf?

The Book on the Bookshelf
Henry Petroski

For those who appreciate a historical perspective on books, you may appreciate reading The Book on the Bookshelf.  Below are selected excerpts that are of interest to me – and hopefully are to you as well.

1.      “The stories of the evolution of the book and the bookshelf truly are inseparable, and both are examples in the evolution of technology.  More than literary factors, technological factors – those relating to materials, function, economy, and use – have shaped the book and the furniture upon which it rests. The evolution of the bookshelf is thus paradigmatic in the history of technology.  But because technology does not exist independent of the social and cultural environments in which it is embedded and which it in turn significantly influences, the history of technological artifact like the book or the bookshelf cannot be understood fully without also addressing its seemingly non-technological aspects.”

2.      “In ancient times, books did not exist as we know them today.  Roman writings were turned into rolls or scrolls, mostly of papyrus, which were termed volumina.  It is from the Latin singular voluminum that our English word “volume” comes.  Both the width and unrolled length of a scroll varied, as do the height and “length” of a book today.  On average, a scroll may have been from 9 to 11 inches across, and the total length of a volume could be in excess of 20 or 30 feet, with a given work occupying several rolls or volumes.” 

“Greek scrolls were similar; it has been estimated that Homer’s Iliad, for example, would have filled about a dozen rolls, and a reconstructed first – or second-century version of the complete work occupies “nearly three hundred running feet of papyrus.”  Had the words had spaces between them, as they do in all modern books, another 30 feet of papyrus might have been required.  “It is extraordinary that so simple a device as the separation of words should never have become general until after the invention of printing,” but such an observation just reinforces how accustomed we have become to practices that once were far from obvious or necessary.  Wordstruntogether are foreign to our eyes, but “with a little practice, it is not so difficult to read an undivided text as might be supposed.”

3.      “The Latin or Greek volume was read from left to right, and when the scroll was held in the hands, the already-read portion was often rolled up in the left hand while the still-to-be-read text was unrolled from the right, not unlike the way we handle the pages of a book being read today.  Sometimes the finished part of the volume was collected behind the scroll, in the way some people fold the pages of a magazine behind it, but more commonly both the read and unread text were rolled up and unrolled on the same side of the scroll.  The former configuration is commonly seen today in schlock printing, the latter in the way blueprints might be unrolled at a construction site.  However oriented, scrolling on computer screens takes its name from the way scrolls worked, and no matter the manner in which it was read, when a scroll was finished it would have to be rewound to be read again, very much as with a modern videotape after it is viewed.”

4.      “The library at Alexandria, which was founded around 300 B.C. as a repository for copies of all the books in the world, is believed to have held hundreds of thousands of scrolls at one time. Whenever a ship came into port, its scrolls were copied for the library. One story, perhaps apocryphal, has the works of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus borrowed from Athens in order to make copies for Alexandria.  According to the account, when the copies were completed, it was they that were sent back to Greece, with the original scrolls being kept in Egypt.”

5.      “By the early centuries of the Christian era, bookshelves had to accommodate, in addition to scrolls, a growing number of bound manuscripts, or codices, which in time would displace scrolls as the preferred format for books.  The codex, named for the fact that it was covered with wood (codex means “tree trunk” in Latin), and which led to the term “code” in a legal context, was made by folding over flat sheets of papyrus or parchment and seeing them together into a binding.  This had several distinct advantages over the scroll.  Where an entire scroll might have to be unrolled to find a passage near the end, the relevant page could be turned to immediately in the codex.  Also, writing in a scroll was normally on the side only, whereas the codex lent itself to the use of both sides of the leaf.

“The codex evolved from the tablets made of wood or ivory that in classical times were hinged together to form what might be described as a portable writing surface.  Tax collectors and others who needed to make notations while standing or while sitting on a horse would have found rolls unmanageable.  Not only did scrolls have to be kept from returning to the natural, rolled-up position, but they also needed a hard surface backing them.  In comparison, the handheld tablet was ideally suited for note-taking.  It could be immediately opened to the desired place, and it presented its own hard surface on which to write. The writing was often done with a stylus on a prepared or impressionable surface.  Rather than needing a third limb to hold an inkpot, everything could be done easily with two hands.  When the task was done, the tablet could be tied or clasped shut to protect its contents, and carried securely.  Some tablets had hollowed-out “pages” filled with wax, so that after a day’s notes were transcribed to a more permanent record, as to a scroll, the impressions in the wax could be smoothed out with the flat end of the same stylus that had been used to make them, and the fresh tablet book was ready for another day of note-taking.”

6.      “For a long time papyrus was the medium of choice.  The word is believed to be of Egyptian origin, as is the plant.  The Greeks referred to papyrus as byblos, after Byblus, the Phoenician city that was a center of papyrus exploration.  Hence we have the Greek word for book, biblion, which in turn gave us the English word “bible,” “The Book.”

7.      “Vellum was another alternative to papyrus.  Although vellum and parchment are often confused in usage, they are, strictly speaking, distinct materials.  Vellum, etymologically related to “veal,” is made from calfskin, though the Latin term relates to the hide of sheep and other animals, and even of fishes, have been used for the purpose of making a material for writing upon,” with stillborn lambs and calves having provided “some of the finest and thinnest” material.  In the final analysis, vellum and parchment proved to be more durable than papyrus.  Unfortunately, the animal-derived material did not come easily, for “one sheep yields no more than a single sheet (two leaves) for a folio book.”  Thus, “a very large flock of sheep” might have to be slaughtered to obtain the parchment needed for a single codex.”

8.      “With the exception of the continued use of the scroll in the practice of religion and for legal purposes in a country like Britain, where there remains a Master of the Rolls, the codex in time did drive out the scroll – general texts being copies from rolls into codex form as early as the fourth century – and thus shelves and armaria came typically to contain only volumes more recognizable today as books.  With the increased number of books with which libraries of all kinds had to deal – and collections always do seem to expand – furniture to hold the books multiplied and grew larger.  Armaria generally retained their form of being essentially what today we might call cupboards or wardrobes, and increasingly in the Middle Ages they were kept locked or otherwise secured.

“Security was necessary, of course, because every book was produced by hand.  Each letter, word, sentence, paragraph, page – each entire volume – was laboriously executed by a scribe, either from another manuscript or from the dictation of a lead scribe who presided over a stable of book producers, much as a master may have supervised the galley slaves rowing an ancient trireme.”

9.      “That is what makes the history of technology interesting and relevant, it not only teaches us about the way things used to be done; it also gives us perspective on how things are done today – and how they most likely will be done n the future.”

10.  “Setting moveable type – letter by letter, word by word, line by line, page by page – was certainly little different than copying out a manuscript, but once that type was set, its reverse image could be inked and pressed time after time after time onto blank sheets of paper and transform them in one fell swoop into printed pages that could be gathered into books.  The essential technology to do this was in place by the middle of the fifteenth century, thanks to Johannes Gutenberg’s innovative method of casting metal type and his development of an ink that would adhere to it and to paper, which enabled Gutenberg to typeset, print, and publish his 42-line Bible in Mainz, Germany, in the early-to-mid 1450s. All books that were produced by this new technology up to the year 1501 are known as incunabula, which is Latin for “things in the cradle,” and an incunabulum is an individual book that came out of the infancy of printing.  The Latin was Englished in the mid-nineteenth century to “incunable,” with the straightforward plural “incunables,” a word that replaced the older English term “fifteeners” for books printed in the fifteenth century.

“Incunabula, being books of a transitional period, often owed much of their appearance to manuscripts, including multiple columns of text per page and initial letters added by hand or printed in a contrasting color of ink.  Estimates vary, but the total number of incunabula that survived to the nineteenth century has been thought to be between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand.  The number of each title printed varied, as it does today, according to expected sales, but several hundred copies often constituted an edition.

“Unlike in the Middle Ages, when “a great book might be available in a hundred manuscript copies, and read at most by a thousand people,” after the middle of the fifteenth century a book “could be available in thousands of copies and read by hundreds of thousands of people.”  It has been estimated that in the sixteenth century in Europe alone there were more than one hundred thousand different books printed. If it is conservatively assumed that there were on average as few as one hundred copies of each book (print runs of several hundred were not uncommon in the fifteenth century), ten million individual copies of books were available to Europeans.  (Some estimates are ten times this.)  Thus, by one very conservative estimate, “the power of the printed word increased a hundredfold the power of the written word.”  Furthermore, more books meant more readers, which translated into more writers, which in turn led to the production of still more books.  And more and more books meant an increasing need to find more and different ways to store and display them, including in shops where they were sold.”

“There’s no book so bad that something good may not be found in it.”
--Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1615)

“When you put down the good things you ought to have done, and leave out the bad ones you did do – well, that’s Memoirs.”
--Will Rogers, Autobiography (1949)

“Most of today’s books have an air of having been written in one day from books read the night before.”
--Nicolas-Sebastien Chamfort, Maximes et pensees (1805)

“Books are a world in themselves, it is true; but they are not the only world.  The world itself is a volume larger than all the libraries in it.”

--William Hazlitt, ‘The Plain Speaker’, On the Conversation of Authors (1846)

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was 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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