What Is a Book? What Is a Book?

What Is a Book?

by Anne Trubek

March 1, 2009

 From incunabula, codices, and scrolls, to books and beyond-a brief history of how humans have been doing their reading.

The debate about the future of publishing seems to be shifting from how best to bail out books to which shiny new ship in the harbor we should throw them onto. iPhone apps? Kindle? Print on demand?What is a book, anyway? Is an iPhone book still a book, or does a book require paper? Are signatures necessary (note cute reference to this column's name), or might enough RAM do?I'm glad you asked, because I am a big fan of the history of the book. So if I may, let me don my professorial robe for a few paragraphs.The first books, or, more exactly technically precisely, things that resemble what we today call books, were codices. The Romans came up with this codex idea. Bound pages had advantages over the then-popular scroll.Now, you might say, "Well of course!" A bunch of bound paper is easier to navigate than a scroll! Plus, you can write on both sides of parchment! What a great, western civilizing idea the codex was!"And you would be right. Not to mention it was none too easy to organize, store and access those bulky papyrii wrapped around wooden poles. (Those of us who attend shul are reminded weekly of the physical limitations of scrolls.) But you would be wrong, too.Why? Let me ask you this: Are you bored? Do you want to read that TMZ post about Jennifer Aniston but feel you should at least see where I am going with this column? Would you like to stop reading this and just take a quick peek at my conclusion? Go ahead. Be my guest. Skip to the end.Aha! What did you just do?  Did you, perchance, scroll? (At this point I invite you to look all around your computer and play another game, "spot the book metaphors." How many book-based terms can you find?*)
Roman codices took awhile to catch on.** About, oh, a millennium, in fact. But codices, to book historians, are not really "books," partially because they were not printed. In the middle ages, monks sat around in scriptoriums, copying manuscripts. So one might argue it was not until the 15th century, when the printing press was invented, that the "book" was born.But even that birth date is not quite right. Getting the presses rolling did not mean we suddenly started producing "books." In fact, there is a special word for the earliest books, the ones produced between 1440, with the invention of the printing press, and January 1, 1501: incunabula. Incunabula are strange beasts, the not-quite-codices and not-quite books produced during a transitional era. They are very cool, and not just because they get their own nifty term.****As my "spot the metaphor" game intends to show, we understand computers through the imprimatur of books. When those first Dells and Apples started rolling off the assembly line, us early adopters needed some help understanding them. We needed something familiar with which to navigate, conceptualize, and just plain figure out these then-revolutionary devices. So we drew upon books to  structure our gradual accommodation to computers (bookstores, too: why do you think we "browse" a website?").  After all, it took centuries for people to get comfortable enough with the the codex to finally give up (almost) on the scroll.But now that we are as familiar with screens as we are with rectos, what next?I do not know. No one does, because we are all early adopters. We are in the middle of the middle, a new, not-really-an-age era of digital incunabula. iPhones, Kindles and, yes, magazines on websites, are strange beasts drooping or, like the Dow, dropping, to Bethlehem, or Mainz, or Palo Alto. We have the technology, but not, not quite yet, but just about, the revolution.****
*This short history of the book is brought to you by Eurocentrism. The Chinese, for instance, did other, often much more impressive things with papyrus, wood, etc.**To name a very few: cut, copy, paste, desktop, bookmark, scroll, page, file, folder….***Luckily, a burgeoning new field in academia has been busily helping us all better understand the history of the book. Book History is now a graduate specialization in English, Media Studies, History and other departments (this is a truly interdisciplinary field). There are some wonderful titles that serve as introductions to this field, including Alberto Manguel's witty A History of Reading, in which one can learn the origins of silent reading (people used to only read aloud, and were miffed when others began to look at books without speaking); the study that serves as ground zero for the field, Elizabeth Eisenstein's historical The Printing Press As An Agent of Change; and the brilliant Walter Ong's theoretical yet accessible Orality and Literacy. (If you want to go beyond introductions to book history, get thee to the best American clearinghouse for book history, the website of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP).****This "column" was "typed" on a "notebook" computer.
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What Is a Book?