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History of the Book

Updated on May 26, 2010

The book as a thing that we see on our shelves does not go back beyond the fifteenth century A.D. But if by 'book' we mean a written literary production, then it goes back to ancient Mesopotamia, and we should have to credit the Sumerians with its invention.

The Sumerians

The Sumerians conquered Mesopotamia before the middle of the fourth millennium B.C. They and the peoples of the surrounding regions in the Near East set down their considerable literature (epics, and magical, religious, historical, scientific, legal and economic texts) on clay tablets. If these can be called books, then the earliest preserved example of a book is an archaic cylinder found at Nippur and assigned to about 2400 B.C. Another tablet from the same site, assigned to the early second millennium B.C. is the earliest example of a grammatical text; to this same period belongs a Nippur tablet containing the titles of sixty-two Sumerian literary productions - which might be called the earliest example of a book-catalogue.

Egypt's Contribution

As ancient Mesopotamia may be considered the cradle of the book in the connotation of literary product, so ancient Egypt may be considered the cradle of the book on perishable material, which is the direct ancestor of our book, as an intellectual instrument of wide circulation. Papyrus was Egypt's contribution - the earliest preserved papyrus (without inscription) seeming to go back to the fourth millennium B.C. The earliest hieratic papyri to survive may be dated c. 2450 B.C. Some papyri attributed to c. 2000 B.C. are copies, more or less accurate, of treatises supposed to have been compiled before or about 2500 B.C.

The Egyptians had astronomical, mathematical and medical texts to record, as well as a rich literature of myths, tales, short stories, ballads and love-songs; and they used the roll form of book, the papyrus which they handed on to the Greeks and Romans, who continued the use of it themselves until the fourth century A.D. The roll simply consists of sheets glued together or sewn together by strings, fastened to a wooden rod, so that it can be rolled from one end to the other. The same kind of rod (called omphalos in Greek and umbilicus in Latin, the 'navel') we still use for rolled maps kept on shelves. Hebrew ritual Bible scrolls have two rods, at the beginning and the end of the roll.

To read a roll-book of this kind, one took the rod in one's right hand, opened the roll with the left hand, and began with the first column. The columns stood at right angles to the long margins of the roll. The amount of text revealed between left hand and right hand was thus not greatly different to the double spread of a modern book, though the usual width of rolls for works of literature was ten inches; rather longer than the height of page in the ordinary modern octavo volume - to use a word enduring from this era of the roll-book, the Latin word volvere, to roll, giving volumen, which was the roll, and our 'volume'.

As one went forward, one rolled up with the left hand the portion already perused, and unrolled new columns with the right. Coming to the end at last, there was the tiresome business of re-rolling the book for the next reader, from right to left.

As for length, there are several Egyptian liturgical rolls of more than fifty feet; a few exceed even 100 feet. The Greenfield Papyrus in the British Museum is 123 feet long, and the great Harris papyrus in the same museum, 133 feet long. The length of Greek rolls varies from fourteen to thirty-five feet, though some appear to have been about fifty feet.

This was an inconvenient method for storage and still more for consultation - especially when using such a work as the Bible (Greek biblia, 'rolls', from biblos, the Greek word for papyrus). There was no easy way to refer to particular passages ; finding a given section or particular phrase in the larger rolls might mean unrolling them to the end. Hence the codex form of book - the book with leaves to be turned over, in shape of the three-leaved wooden writing tablets (codex) from which it takes its name.

How early the codex form was employed it is impossible to say. It may go back to the first century B.C., and it was certainly in use among Christians from the early part of the second century A.D. If the codex was not actually a Christian invention, it was most promptly taken up by the early Christian community, and so brought into prominence. Papyrus was used, and did not go wholly out of use for some centuries, though succeeded by the more durable parchment or vellum.

From the third to the sixth centuries A.D. papyrus roll and more rarely papyrus codex, vellum codex and (though very seldom) parchment roll or vellum roll, were all in use as forms of book.

By the fourth century papyrus roll was succeeded by parchment codex as the main form: the book had recognizably become the book we know, and was differently manufactured, with paper in place of the old expensive page materials and by means of the printing press. Thus before the European development in the fifteenth century of printing with movable type, the form and. proportions of the book and the basic elements of our reading process had been established. Europe's first dated and signed printed volume is the psalter printed by Fust and Schoffer in 1457, a year or two years later than the completion of Gutenberg's forty-two-line Bible. By 1490 there were a hundred printers in Venice alone; by the end of the century 40,000 different books had been printed in Europe. England was then on the margin. The new book technique was slow in crossing the Channel. The first dated English-printed book, which Caxton issued from his press at Westminster, bears the date of 11 November 1477.


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