Lessons from History: The Book
In recent years we’ve seen a massive adoption of e-books and a new industry evolving around e-readers and e-book publication. In the span of history, the adoption has been shockingly quick, especially when compared to the adoption of other systems of writing and reading throughout history.The adoption reflects our society’s increased demand for textual consumption and our new ways of perceiving and processing text.
In Roman times, the strong trade connections between what is now Europe and the Mediterranean meant the widespread availability of papyrus through the Roman world. Inexpensive and simple to produce, papyrus allowed for widespread literacy and literary production. In other words, writing could be used for more than ceremonial or culturally significant texts. When stone is the only medium for writing, you probably are not going to write much.
In Roman times, the typical medium for writing was the scroll. The codex — what we now call the “book” — was first developed around the beginning of the Common Era, but it took about 300 years to become widely used and did not replace the scroll completely as the dominant format for five or six hundred years.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, trade broke down, and Europe entered a new era. Papyrus was no longer available, and people needed to find a different medium for writing. The solution was to use calf and sheepskin (parchment and vellum). Skins had to be extensively treated and prepared before they were ready for writing. It was a laborious and expensive process to produce a single page. Books themselves, therefore, had to be carefully planned and executed by professional scribes who had trained on wax tablets. From a modern perspective, writing was a scalability nightmare, so it is truly remarkable how much written material was produced during the middle ages in Europe.
As might be expected, literacy declined and was not widespread during much of the middle ages. But as the High Middle Ages dawned, literacy began to expand once again, and books began to be used for more than religious purposes. The scale of book production became immense, but it still relied on the laborious process of preparing animal skins to use as pages. As the demand for more written material increased, Europe saw several innovations quickly taking hold, notably printing and paper.
The issues faced in adopting these technologies were very much the same in the 15th century as they are today. Book production was an entrenched art and industry, and disruptive technologies that could supply something cheaper, faster, and better suited to the needs of customers were looked on both as exciting new developments, and as abhorrent degradations of an ancient tradition.
Just as the increased demand for textual production and consumption drove the adoption of printing and paper, an insatiable demand for textual consumption has lead to widespread adoption of new innovations we are witnessing at this very moment.
In the early days of the book, silent reading did not even exist. It was considered a miracle when some monks discovered St. Jerome reading silently in his cell. In those days, each word was to be savored, even committed to memory; now text flows through us like wind among the leaves. Our perception of text has changed, and with it, the media of consumption have evolved. Even though we now often consider “technology” to require electronics, the codex was cutting edge technology in the days of its invention and adoption.
The codex has been in use for about 2000 years. It is one of our greatest traditions and has become an important part of our culture. The speed with which e-books have been adopted is truly phenomenal considering the history of the book. It is the next phase of textual evolution, as we process more and more textual material. From this, I fear for the survival of the codex, which holds a dear place in my heart; rather than its disappearance, I prefer to see its return to its former place as a revered object housing the texts deemed most worthy of retention.