The History of Books

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Podcast Transcript

Books are one of the foundational tools of civilization. They allow us to pass knowledge and information between people who don’t know each other, and their compact form allows knowledge to be transported across vast distances. 

Their permanence allows information to be sent across time such that centuries might separate a writer from a reader. 

But how did books develop, and in the modern world, is a book still a book if it’s purely digital? 

Learn more about books, where they came from, and how they’ve changed on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’ve previously done episodes on the history of writing, the printing press, paper, and several other related topics. 

To be sure, writing, the printing press, and paper were all vital to the development of books. However, in this episode, I want to take a slightly different approach.

I want to focus on the format of books as well as the culture and business of books. 

When writing developed, it began with people making marks on clay tablets to keep permanent records. That eventually evolved to use animal skins in the form of vellum and parchment, and the development of papyrus in Egypt. 

These were lighter and easier to transport and store than clay tablets, but there then arose an issue of what to do when you had writing that consisted of multiple pages. 

The first solution to this problem was the scroll. Scrolls were developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt and were a very simple solution to the problem. Pieces of papyrus or parchment were just connected end to end, usually with some adhesive, to create one long continuous sheet that would be stored by being rolled up.

The oldest known scroll is the Diary of Merer, found in Egypt and dated to the year 2568 BC.

Scrolls appear to have been developed independently in many different cultures. They appeared in China and India and probably in Mesoamerica as well. 

Scrolls were usually held horizontally, with only one page appearing at a time for reading. To move to the next page, you would roll up one end and unroll the other. This type of scroll in Latin is known as a “volumen.”

A scroll that is held vertically is known as a “rotulus.”

Images discovered in the ruins of Pompeii show people holding both a rotulus and a volumen.

Scrolls were fine, and they worked, but they were hardly optimal. They were awkward to store and transport and finding something in the middle of a scroll was difficult. This is something that most modern people on the internet can appreciate if you have ever had to find your place in the middle of a very long single page website.

Before I leave the subject of scrolls, I should note that scrolls lasted a long time. During the Islamic golden age, scrolls remained popular, and the earliest forms of the Koran were all written on scrolls.

In Europe, scrolls remained used for important documents such as laws up through the Renaissance, and they also remained in use in China and Korea well past the year 1000. 

The Jewish Torah is still traditionally kept on a scroll the same way it was thousands of years ago.

The thing that eventually replaced the scroll was the codex. A codex, by all outward appearances, looks like a book and, depending on how you define it, can be considered a book. 

The earliest codex that we know of is the Graz Mummy Book. It was discovered in Alexandria, Egypt, and has been dated back to the year 260 BC. The Graz Mummy Book isn’t a full codex. Only a fragment shows folding and holes, indicating that it might have been an early form of codex. 

The widespread use of the codex began under the Romans. According to legend, Julius Caesar invented the codex. When Caesar was writing his Gallic Commentaries, he supposedly folded a scroll like an accordion to form pages.

It is highly unlikely that Caesar invented the codex, but it is one of the earliest known references to the technique.

This method of folding a single sheet to create pages is known as a bifolio. Like the scroll, the bifolio appears to have been independently discovered in many different places. Mayan and Aztec codexes have been discovered that are folded scrolls similar to the early Roman scrolls. 

The codex replaced the scroll rather quickly because it had so many advantages over a scroll. 

Scrolls were expensive to make. Parchment wasn’t cheap and scrolls could only be written on one side. Eventually people realized that instead of foling the sheets of scroll, you could cut the pages and write on both sides, having the amount of parchment needed for the same amount of writing. 

A codex also didn’t require a wooden stick, known as an umbilicus, nor did it require a bag to contain it. This made them more portable and easier to store.

A codex only needed leather or wooden covers for protection. The word “codex” actually comes from the Latin word caudex, which means a tree trunk or block of wood. 

Codexes were easier to read, and easier to copy because you could hold it open on a certain page. 

You can easily index a codex and reference different parts of the document by page, which you can’t easily do with a scroll. 

Finally, every time you rolled and unrolled a scroll you were deforming the parchment which would slowly ruin the parchment and the ink every time you used it. The pages of a codex were flat and stayed flat, so they lasted longer. 

To give you an idea of how quickly the codex was adopted…

In the Villa of the Papyri in the buried town of Herculaneum near Pompeii, all of the texts found were scrolls when it was buried in the year 79. 

However, the Nag Hammadi library, which is a collection of Christian texts discovered in the Egyptian desert that has been dated to the year 390, is all codexes. 

By the fifth century in Egypt, codexes outnumbered scrolls ten to one. By the sixth century, the scroll was all but gone, save for ceremonial purposes.

By the Middle Ages in Europe, the creation of codexes, or books by this point, became an industry, one which was mostly conducted by monasteries. 

Each book was hand crafted. Every page was usually made out of parchment, which was expensive, and then the writing on every page had to be written by hand from a source copy. On top of that, there were also hand drawn illustrations and sometimes, especially for bibles, covers that were encrusted in jewels. 

Both the time commitment and the resources that went into making books is part of what made them so expensive and treasured. 

This was the state of affairs up until the development of the printing press in the 15th century. The printing press changed everything. It was to publishing was the assembly line was to manufacturing. 

While it did take some time to put together a page with movable type, once it was ready, hundreds of pages could be printed in a short amount of time.This led to an explosion in the number of books. 

It wasn’t just the printing press that made this possible. It was also the shift from parchment to paper. Paper could be made much chaper than parchment and in larger quantities. 

With more books, wealthy people amassed book collections and libraries began to accumulate books. Libraries had always existed but they were usually singular institutions. The number of libraries in the ancient world was very small. You could probably count the number of libraries around the Ancient Mediterrean on your fingers.

The hand operated Guttenburg style printing press with a worm screw was the basic design for printing presses until the 19th century. It was replaced by the steam power printing press. 

The steam powered printing press could print almost 10 times the number of pages per hour as the hand operated press. 

It wasn’t just the ability to print more pages. Paper made from wood pulp made paper cheaper and more abundant. 

Bookbinding machines automated what was a labor-intensive process, which led to a new explosion in books. 

Unlike the Gutenberg revolution which made books more common, the industrial revolution saw books become commonplace. Middle class people could now afford books and have books in their home beyond a bible. 

Novels and widespread reading for enjoyment became popular as book prices fell. Encyclopedias, which attempted to encapsulate all knowledge, were now possible. 

The 19th century also saw one of the biggest advances in bookmaking and an innovation which again radically reduced the coast of books: the paperback book. The idea behind a paperback book was simple. The cover was paper just like all the interior pages. The first paperback books appeared in the 16th century, but they were never produced in large quantities. 

These cheap paperback books were often sold in places like train stations, not traditional bookstores, making them much more accessible. 

By the late 19th century, ever smaller communities had lending libraries where regular people could come and check out books.

The early 20th century also saw the rise of sound recording and one of the first things recorded were narrations of books. These records would have been the first audiobooks. 

Improved printing and distribution in the 20th century led to the rise of a mass market of paperback books. 

Mass-market paperback books were made by companies that published multiple books with a standard size, no illustrations, and color coded covers. 

Albatross books in Germany is considered to be the first such paperback publishers having been founded in 1931. Pocket Books was launched in 1939 which ushered in an era of cheap books which became known as pulp fiction. 

The business model for these mass-market paperback publishers was to bypass bookstores and go directly where the people were. For example, in 1939, there were twenty-eight hundred bookstores in the United States. However, there were more than seven thousand newsstands, eighteen thousand cigar stores, and fifty-eight thousand drugstores.

For most of the 20th century, publishing was a mass-market business. Books with small audiences had a hard time finding a publisher because publishers didn’t want to take the risk of printing a run of books that no one wanted. 

However, technology again helped solve this problem. The development of copiers and printers in the later part of the 20th century led to the creation of print-on-demand books.

With print-on-demand books, an entire book can be printed and bound automatically when it is ordered. There was no need to do a large print run and keep an inventory. 

Print-on-demand books are usually more expensive, but a print-on-demand publisher can keep thousands of books in their inventory, ready to be printed at a moment’s notice. 

The rise of digital technology resulted in the total separation of books from a physical medium. 

In 1992, the Adobe Corporation created the portable document format, or PDF. It allows text to be laid out and displayed just like it would be in print, but in an electronic format. These became known as e-books. 

After the creation of e-books, the next natural step was the development of e-readers. 

In 1997, the E Ink Corporation developed a new technology called electronic paper, which is now commonly called e-ink. 

While you can read an ebook on any computer device with a screen, e-ink devices have a very different type of display than what you are used to. 

E-ink displays are not back lit, and the display consists of tiny balls that are black or white and are either positively or negatively charged. Depending on the charge applied, each pixel will have the black or white balls forced to the surface to provide an image. 

Unlike other displays like LCD or OLED, an e-ink image will remain after you turn off the power. This makes they very battery efficient. The lack of a backlight also makes them very easy to read in direct sunlight. 

Digitizing books has also made them more available than every before. Sites like Project Gutenberg and Standard Books provide free digital book downloads of titles that are in the public domain. 

Project Gutenberg has over 72,000 titles, which are free to download. 

Even in a world with instant digital access to almost every book ever written, there is still a thriving market for printed books made out of paper. I use both e-readers and printed books, and I can see the value in both.  The convenience of an e-reader can’t be denied, but there is also something to be said about the permanence and tactile feel of an actual book. 

No matter how you buy or consume books today, the one thing almost everyone can agree on is that books are one of the things that made the modern world what it is today.