The Book: the Most Powerful Object of Our Time

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time 
Keith Houston
W.W. Norton & Company  428pp  £18.99

Here is is a many-sided tale of Alexander the Great and of arsenic sulphide, of Bavarian limestone and of metaphorical black tigers, of Charlemagne and of the mythical city of Crocodilopolis, not to mention of zhu bo (bamboo and silk) and of Hermann Zapf (type designer extraordinaire), all set against a framework provided by the rise and fall of empires and the millennia-long march of technology. It is full of arcane knowledge: the techniques of anthropodermic bibliopegy (binding a book with human skin), or the role played by a book in bearing the brunt of an ambush by heathen guerrillas on St Boniface in 752 (the book survives today in Fulda Cathedral; Boniface died, alas).

Keith Houston’s subject is not the content, not the great ideas, of the book in history, but the apparently mundane yet – as it transpires – animating and enlightening adventure from which the physical book took a form that must rank as one of mankind’s greatest inventions. It also acts as a good reminder of how challenging it is to write history away from the well-travelled roads of high politics and social change: so many false trails, so few neat answers because humans are not always, nor often, orderly, still less dispassionate, about the inventions they record. There is, however, one consistent theme: the high place given by all societies to the book and its precursors; the scribal culture of Ancient Egypt, for example, with its sense of the magical power of hieroglyphs, the palettes, the brushes, the handmade ink of the scribes, their status, survived much longer than Egypt itself as an independent state. 

What is ‘the oldest surviving book in the world’? Is it the Prisse Papyrus, almost 4,000 years old and today in the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris? That was a scroll, so on the grounds that a book might be defined as a substantive piece of writing bound into a document inside a cover, the honour might go to the Etruscan Gold Book, c.660 BC, six sheets of 24 carat gold, bound together with rings. Equally, the 13 leather-bound codices of Gnostic texts from the fourth century ad, found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, feel more culturally convincing to us as ‘a book’.

The author in effect presents us with a series of such riddles as he analyses his subject in four main parts, each devoted to particular physical aspects of how the modern book evolved. The first is the diverse materials – tortoise shells, wood, clay, human bones, papyrus, parchment – that were used to record information before the triumph of paper so many centuries after its first invention in China, supposedly by Cai Lun, c.105 AD, but in fact at least a few hundred years before that. Then, in the second part, the long story of how signs scratched on stone and impressed on clay on the plains between the Euphrates and the Tigris perhaps 5,000 years ago – and once taken to be the footprints of birds scurrying across fresh clay – eventually became writing as we know it. And on to the tangled threads that make up the history of printing and especially what happened when ‘a man called Gutenberg pulled and released the lever of a makeshift wine press, and everything changed’. More books were made in the 50 years after the Gutenberg Bible (c.1455) than in the preceding 1,000; still, the many subsequent advances in printing technology through to the present day played a fundamental role in cementing the cultural importance of the book. 

The third and fourth sections examine illustrations – before the printed book in the great illuminated manuscripts and in the role at various times of woodcut, engraving, etching, lithography and digitalisation – and lastly such quietly brilliant testimonies to human ingenuity as the page, bookbinding and adopting sizes that suit human beings. Herman Melville even invoked the language of book sizes in Moby-Dick, when he made a taxonomy of whales, secure that his audience would understand that narwhal was ‘octavo’.

Today the physical book is often called ‘old technology’. Certainly, it is old. But which is most likely to survive the next 1,000 years? The digital data kept in storage media of dubious longevity, intangibly imprisoned behind a screen or on a range of deeply anonymous objects where the rustle of the paper, the crackle of the glue and the satisfying smell of the book are lost to memory? Or, instead, St Cuthbert’s Gospel, survivor in its original binding of Viking raids and all other turbulences over 1,300 years and safely viewable in the British Library? My money is on St Cuthbert.

Jamie Camplin is a historian and publisher. His next book (with Maria Ranauro) will be entitled Books Do Furnish a Painting.

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