Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A history 

The first "books" were actually scrolls. They got the job done, in that you could write on them, read them, and transport them easily, but they had to be "rewound" after a reading, like a video tape, and they were impossible to index. They were sometimes wrapped up with leather ties or kept in tubes, and the ends often had tags on them to identify the work. Then came the codex, often made from papyrus and wood, that closely resembled "books" as we imagine them today. Often the codex would be two wooden slabs filled with wax and hinged together - a scribe could write in the wax during the day, then transcribe everything to a scroll, and smooth out the wax again to take notes the next day. As codices were gradually stocked with paper instead of ivory or wood, they resembled more and more books of today.

But those original books were both more ornate and more protected than books today. Everything had to be written by hand (sometimes by illiterate scribes - you don't need to know the language to copy what amounts to a drawing line by line) and took years. Covers were gilded and set with precious stones. The ugly but functional spines faced the wall on the rare occasions books were shelved, and ornate locks both kept the text secret and kept the book pressed together, lest the pages warp. More often, the book was displayed on an easle-type shelf, so the cover could be seen.

Libraries chained their books to the shelves. Tangling became a problem as more and more books were written, but since books were so valuable, it was still the best security solution librarians could think of.

Finally, Gutenberg invented his printing press.

The first real effect that had was that books were less frequently ornamented and less frequently chained - few people collected books, and that would take time to change. Conventions changed so that the names of books were imprinted along the spine. People could store books on shelves, vertically, as the tradition of ornamenting the cover became less common.

Skip forward a few centuries, and we now have ebooks and websites like Gutenberg.org that aim to digitize all books whose copyrights have expired. All this, in my mind, was a good thing. The text of the book became more valuable than the casing.

This history is just my long-winded lead-up to the fact that I bought a used copy of Steinbeck's The Moon in Down and Hemingway's A Moveable Feast for a couple of bucks yesterday. I think I read the former in middle school. But books are cheap enough now that someone decided to give these to the library book sale, and I bought both for less that the cost of a matinee movie ticket.

Granted, the books I bought are in bad shape. They're yellowing, because of the acid in wood pulp paper (as opposed to hemp paper or papyrus). The glue on the spine is weakening. The paper covers are rounded from use. But all the words are clear. And if I fall in love with either, and if years from now they disolve in my hands, I can get another.

And that's a wonderful feeling. The medium is not the message. The message is the message.

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