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What is a Book?

Updated on May 16, 2010

Book (derivation uncertain, probably connected with Old English hoc, beech, possibly because beech wood may have been used for writing tablets), the physical carrier of a written work, the literary work itself, or a major division of that work. The most important watershed in the history of the book occurred in the second half of the 15th century with the development of printing, by means of which books could be mass-produced. Until then all books in the Western world were handwritten manuscripts. In the East printing had been employed for a while in China after the invention of paper in AD 105 and printing in the 6th century AD. Books in ancient China had been made from bamboo or wood strips, though inscriptions were also made on stone tablets and silk.

Although some of the ancient clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions may be considered as books, especially those of a literary nature such as the Gilgamesh Epic, the true ancestors of the modern book printed on paper were those written on papyrus or parchment, in roll or codex form. The earliest surviving books are Egyptian rolls of papyrus or parchment wound round a stick and inscribed with hieroglyphics. The papyrus roll remained the form of book favoured in Greece and Rome up to the 14th century AD. In the history of the book, the transition from rolls to the 'codex' shape still used in the modern book is second in importance only to the invention of printing. In Cicero's time (106 BC-AD 43), the Latin word caudex or codex (originally, a tree trunk) denoted a set of wooden tablets. Each tablet consisted of a flat piece of wood, with a central area hollowed out on one or both sides to receive a film of wax. Writing was scratched on the wax with a metal stylus, and the wax was replaced when required; the remaining wooden surfaces were also sometimes inscribed in ink. The tablets, commonly arranged in sets of two (or up to as many as ten) leaves, were tied together at one edge to open like a modern book. Such sets of tablets were not intended for full-scale books but for smaller items such as documents and also for any writings of an impermanent nature—sums, school exercises, or an author's first draft. In their arrangement in sets (known as diptychs, trip-tychs, polyptychs, according to the number of leaves), writing tablets were the immediate precursors of books in codex form. Papyrus, and later parchment, sheets were folded to compose a series of pages where both sides of the sheet could be used for writing. The first people to use the codex form extensively for books were the Christians; this has been demonstrated conclusively from papyrologi-cal finds, especially the New Testament codices of the 2nd to 4th centuries AD, which now belong to the Chester Beatty collection at Dublin and the Fondation Martin Bodmer at Cologny (Geneva). The codex, of papyrus or parchment, was certainly the vehicle for Christian texts from the earliest times, and reached its most magnificent form in parchment volumes such as the Codex Sinaiticus. For non-religious literature, the predominance of the roll was not threatened by the codex until the 4th century AD.

During the 2nd century BC, when the supply of papyrus declined owing to a shortage in Egypt, prepared sheep and goat skins were introduced as a substitute. The method of preparing skins was traditionally assigned to Eumenes II, King of Pergamum (or Pergamus) and the name parchment, from the Latin pergamena (charts), was given to this paper of Pergamum. Parchment, or the finer Vellum, had replaced papyrus by 400 AD.

During the Middle Ages manuscripts were copied by hand; it was a slow method and the results were rare and valuable, but after Gutenberg developed printing in Europe, in 1450, the production of books expanded enormously, although their form was largely unaffected. The earliest printed books are known as Incunabula . The type used was similar to the calligraphy which had been usual up to that time. Books were first printed without title-pages, and the information about the printer and place of printing was given at the end. It was not until the beginning of the 16th century that books began to include a title-page, together with the name and address of the printer and the date. Early printed books were large and, owing to the method of binding, heavy. During the 16th century the introduction of smaller type, and the reduction in the size and weight of books, did much to popularise them, and brought many within the reach of ordinary people. In the early 17th century fewer books were printed and they increased in price. Towards the end of the century, however, there was an improvement in printing, although books remained expensive. A great improvement in printing and binding took place in the 18th century and prices again became reasonable. Books were often published by subscription, that is, they were sold before printing, or even before writing, by means of preliminary notices, and then the price was high. Illustrations began to appear, and during this period began the growth in popularity of the novel, which was usually printed in several volumes. The price of books during the greater part of the century was fairly uniform, and they could be bought by all except the very poor, but towards the end of the century prices again rose.

A vast improvement in every respect took place in the 19th century. Books were well bound, well printed, and, in many cases, well illustrated. The publishing of books at popular prices began, although cheap books were generally not well printed or bound. At the turn of the century, however, mechanical typesetting and printing and machine binding all contributed to bring cheap and well-produced books within the reach of all. During the 20th century other factors made books even more widely available to readers who, profiting from improvements in education, were becoming increasingly literate at an ever earlier age; these included the development of public and school library services; the formation of book clubs, beginning with Readers Union in 1937, selling to their members books at less than the original published price; and the paperback revolution, signalled in 1935 by the founding of Penguin Books which sold paperback reprints of books from all publishers at sixpence each. The paperback, known in America and on the Continent as the pocketbook, is cheap when it can be sold economically in large numbers, amounting usually to at least ten or more times that of the original edition.

Writing, paper, and books all developed as means of transferring and storing information, but the amount of printed matter now produced is growing at such a rate that there are problems of space for holding it all. One solution is to transfer printed information to microfilm, but although this is useful for official information, the medium of film does not as yet seem a serious rival to the book for the general reader.


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