The Book: A Fantastic Piece of Technology
When you think of the world technology, what comes to mind? Odds are big machines, like planes, trains and automobiles, and things with screens and plugs. However, if you look at the dictionary definition of the word, ‘the use of science in industry, engineering, ect., to invent useful things to solve problems,’ the idea of a ‘technology’ expands to include everyday items such as a pencil, a cloths hanger, a mailbox and, yes, a book. And, like all technology, the modern book involved several abandoned formats and went through recognizable stages to get to its current level of acceptance.
The Form: A Timetable of Materials
A books most useful feature is to act as a storehouse for knowledge and memory, and it went through several iterations before its current state of existence with base materials of paper and glue or bits and bytes. Previous materials include:
· Cuneiform tablets: Made of clay and generally thought to include the practical knowledge of tax records
· Scrolls: Found in Egypt in 3000BCE, these long documents, stretching from 14–52 feet in length could contain one or multiple documents. They proved very fragile and easily broken leaving us only scraps and fragments of writing
· Codex: Pages of parchment, treated animal skins, were folded into sheets and sewn between wooden covers. This Roman invention, used from the 2nd to 4th centuries AD, ensured durability and portability. This lead to the first instance of libraries, both personal ones in homes and large institutions such as the famous one in Alexandria, Egypt
· Block printing: Originating in China in 868 AD, this involved taking a large block of wood, engraving it, inking it and then applying it to a page. This resulted in the first printed book, The Diamond Sutra.
· Manuscripts: During the Middle Age Europe literacy was a rare skill and production of texts centralized in monasteries, copied by hand by scribes in a room called a scriptorium and stored on-site in the library. This long practice, from 600–1400 AD, lead to the illuminated manuscripts found in many museums today.
The Coming of the Press
Between the years 1347–1351, the Black Plague hit Europe, taking 50 million lives with it, including many of the clergy and monks, the Middle Age’s front line workers, along with it. In addition to taking their lives, it also took the stored knowledge of how to create the readable calligraphy, not to mention the illustrations, used in manuscripts with them. Without teachers, learning the writing technique, which generally took about a decade to master, meant that the workforce for this dwindled. This scarce number of people with this skill, along with a growing need for literate people in the secular world, caused pressure to mount for some kind of replacement. It came in 1448 when Gutenberg created the moveable type printing press. It launched a reading revolution as increased literacy rates meant a hungry audience wanting fresh content. Universities, a newer institution, and libraries, an ancient one, began their road to the places they hold today.
Bones of Contention
It’s hard to imagine, but the printing press and the books and pamphlets it created were not embraced by everyone. Like every new technology, books had the early evangelists and the laggards. Reading, from the time of the manuscript, was a communal activity. Someone would read aloud to a group. As a long established norm, it was a slow transition away from it, a leftover from oral storytelling traditions and never entirely abandoned, toward the way we read today, as a private interior activity. And many critics worried about the idea of misprinting. Although manuscripts done by hand contained mistakes, that was a single copy, and other copies in other libraries could be counted on to ensure the correct translation. The printing press could spread that mistake, potentially changing the entire meaning of a text, across thousands of items. Still, the demand for new content drove this new business past all concerns.
New Technology=New Problems AND New Opportunities
And like any new technology, printing involved a “wild west” period. Piracy ran rapid with printers working hard to beat each other to press. Writers, a strange new profession, often saw little reward for their work, as this process of stealing, even translating them, did not see the money created getting back to them. However, this phase also produced a willingness to experiment with this new form. Seminal texts like Gilgamesh, The Divine Comedy and The Canterbury Tales, texts in vernacular (common) languages arrived on the scene. And the arrival of copyright laws in most countries curbed the abuses and allowed the book to evolve into the technology we have today.
The book is a technology, designed to store history, philosophy, science and stories so we can extend our knowledge past what we can hold in our heads. And despite the many forms it has taken in its long history, from cuneiform to paper to digital, it, along with the scholarship and libraries it spawned, still accomplishes this monumental task.