A History Of the Book



Beginnings of the Book

riting with words was invented by the Sumerians about five thousand years ago (c.3100 BC). As far as we know it derived from symbols used for the keeping of accounts around four hundred years earlier.  Sumer was located in what is now Southern Iraq.

At first, writing was restricted to inscriptions, e.g. on stone, seals, brooches, and containers. The Sumerians then developed baked clay tablets, which can be regarded as the first books. These were soon followed by the papyrus rolls of the Egyptians, made from a plant native only to the Nile Valley. From around 500 BC the papyrus roll became dominant, although clay tablets survived for another five hundred years or so.

Temporary records could be kept on wooden tablets hollowed out and filled with a wax coating. Students, merchants and others could write on the wax, then erase their markings and reuse the surface. These tablets could be connected in groups, which formed a model for the later codex book.


The Codex

The traditional modern form of the book is called the codex. It has multiple separate leaves of pages, bound between protective covers. This format has been with us for about nineteen hundred years (from around the second century AD).  Within two hundred years of its introduction the codex became dominant. The codex book (plural = codices) has survived so long because it has many unique advantages.


Papyrus, Parchment and Paper

The first codex books used either papyrus or parchment as the writing surface.  Parchment was made from animal skin and gradually became preferred to papyrus for the codex, as it was more suitable for the new format.  By the 7th century AD, parchment had almost replaced papyrus altogether in Europe and the Middle East, and remained the preferred medium in Europe for about 800 years longer.

The disappearance of papyrus use was hastened by the near extinction of the papyrus plant, caused by foolish over harvesting. Parchment use did not seem impractical, since books were rare items hand-copied in only very limited quantities. Another, more expensive writing material was vellum, a higher quality variety of parchment made at first only from calfskin.

Meanwhile paper was invented in China as early as 105 AD, and was at first prepared from bark and hemp. This paper developed to a high standard, and paper-making later spread to Japan (c.610 AD), and then to the Arab world along the Silk Road, via Samarkand in Central Asia.  Pre-Columbian American civilisations also produced a more primitive bark paper from an unknown date.

The Arabs introduced paper into Europe via Spain.  However it was not actually made in Europe until around 1276 AD (in Italy), and not in England until 1495.  One reason for this slow advance was that European-style paper, made usually from flax and hemp, was at first inferior to parchment, especially for illustrations. So until it was improved, paper was not very suitable for the style of illustrated manuscript common in the West.


           baked clay tablet, image            papyrus plant image            ancient Chinese printing image             medieval illustrated manuscript image             Gutenberg printing press image             rotary press image                 first modern e-reader image

            Above, from left:  Baked clay tablet, papyrus plant, Chinese block printing, medieval illustrated manuscript, Gutenberg printing press, rotary press, first modern e-reader device (the Rocket eBook)



Printing was another Chinese invention.  The first known book not written by hand was printed in what is now China in the ninth century AD, from engraved wooden blocks.  Because Chinese writing was in the form of a very large number of pictographs, moveable type was of little advantage.  However such cast type did appear in Korea before developing quite independently in Europe.

A major advance in the West was Johannes Gutenberg's printing from cast metal type (c.1450 AD). However this was still hand composed on a mostly wooden press.

The next great change was slow to arrive, being the metal printing press developed by Lord Charles Stanhope in 1803. This still relied on human power to operate, however.  A steam-powered press invented by the German Friedrich Koenig followed in 1810.

An American, Richard Hoe, invented the faster rotary press in 1846. Printing raced further ahead when the mechanical composition of type was perfected in 1886 with the Linotype compositor.

Lithography was long used to print pictures for books.  From this method came the idea for offset printing, and the first offset press appeared in 1904.

In offset printing the method of "relief" printing from cast metal type, traditional since Gutenberg, is replaced by a smooth photographic plate. The latter prints indirectly through a reverse image on a rubberised cylinder.  By 1980 offset printing was taking over from the older method in many countries.

That was only the beginning of the modern printing revolution.  From 1968 computers became involved in printing (the Linotron).  In 1983 the offset plate progressed to a format involving the laser-beam transference of stored digital information. Gradually, printing world-wide became a digital and computerised process, and mechanical printing began to disappear.


The Digital Revolution

This change led to the irony that a series of advanced digital electronic processes now produced the traditional analogue material book.  It was only a matter of time before the logical conclusion would be drawn - that books could exist in a purely electronic form.

Moreover, such books could incorporate new possibilities undreamed of in the printed codex book.  For example, they could be instantly updated, be searchable electronically, include sounds & video and even a dictionary, and interact directly with the new Internet, and therefore contain instant links to further information.

The advent of digital book files also meant that traditional physical books could now be printed individually, as required, from a stored computer file (Print on Demand, or POD), rather than in the traditional large print runs.  This meant that "out of print" books could now be made available again within hours, and indeed that the whole concept of "out of print" titles could be abolished over time. As well, it now became financially practicable to print less popular books in limited numbers where before they were uneconomic to print at all.

So rather than immediately displacing the printed codex, the advent of the digital book meant that the physical book could now flourish as never before. At the same time this change prepared the ground for a decisive future shift towards electronic reading (remember for example that clay tablets survived into the era of papyrus rolls for around five hundred years).


Dawn of the e-Book

The electronic book or e-book (also spelt ebook and eBook) began to emerge in its own right in the last years of the twentieth century, existing as a virtual entity stored in a digital file.  Like many new technologies it suffered from technical teething troubles, ineffective or inappropriate marketing, commercial rivalries that slowed its progress, and initial public scepticism or indifference.

Gradually however the electronic book became capable of being easily read from a wide variety of devices, and its vast potential began to be more widely understood.  It became clear that the e-book would represent the next leap forward in the onward march of the book.  While it can simply represent traditional texts and thus replicate all existing literature, the e-book can also become a layered and interactive multimedia experience.  Indeed, the book of the future could even be spontaneously assembled from multiple sources for specific educational or entertainment purposes, by a single reader or group. The e-book therefore holds the promise of adding an unprecedented degree of flexibility to the concept of the book.

The book is one of humanity's most enduring cultural artifacts and treasures. As it evolves, the greatest threat to its future is therefore not from technical advances but from the danger of new generations losing the inclination to read. The ability to read and write is our greatest tool in education, and, apart from the family, the single most important medium existing for the transmission of ideas and the continuance of an evolving human culture. Why should we continue to value, preserve, read and write books?  Simply because of what they represent.  Books record our past and progress; contain our experiments, fancies, knowledge, and accumulated wisdom; proclaim our fears and ideas; and champion our ideals, dreams, and hopes for the future. More than any other medium, books carry the heart and soul of our civilisation forward, and keep it accessible. Long live the book!



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