Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Brief History of the Book

"The free communication of thought and opinion is one of the most precious rights of man; every citizen may therefore speak, write and print freely."

(French National Assembly, 1789)

I. What is a Book?

UNESCO's arbitrary and ungrounded definition of "book" is:

""Non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages excluding covers".

But a book, above all else, is a medium. It encapsulates information (of one kind or another) and conveys it across time and space. Moreover, as opposed to common opinion, it is - and has always been - a rigidly formal affair. Even the latest "innovations" are nothing but ancient wine in sparkling new bottles.

Consider the scrolling protocol. Our eyes and brains are limited readers-decoders. There is only that much that the eye can encompass and the brain interpret. Hence the need to segment data into cognitively digestible chunks. There are two forms of scrolling - lateral and vertical. The papyrus, the broadsheet newspaper, and the computer screen are three examples of the vertical scroll - from top to bottom or vice versa. The e-book, the microfilm, the vellum, and the print book are instances of the lateral scroll - from left to right (or from right to left, in the Semitic languages).

In many respects, audio books are much more revolutionary than e-books. They do not employ visual symbols (all other types of books do), or a straightforward scrolling method. E-books, on the other hand, are a throwback to the days of the papyrus. The text cannot be opened at any point in a series of connected pages and the content is carried only on one side of the (electronic) "leaf". Parchment, by comparison, was multi-paged, easily browseable, and printed on both sides of the leaf. It led to a revolution in publishing and to the print book. All these advances are now being reversed by the e-book. Luckily, the e-book retains one innovation of the parchment - the hypertext. Early Jewish and Christian texts (as well as Roman legal scholarship) was written on parchment (and later printed) and included numerous inter-textual links. The Talmud, for example, is made of a main text (the Mishna) which hyperlinks on the same page to numerous interpretations (exegesis) offered by scholars throughout generations of Jewish learning.

Another distinguishing feature of books is portability (or mobility). Books on papyrus, vellum, paper, or PDA - are all transportable. In other words, the replication of the book's message is achieved by passing it along and no loss is incurred thereby (i.e., there is no physical metamorphosis of the message). The book is like a perpetuum mobile. It spreads its content virally by being circulated and is not diminished or altered by it. Physically, it is eroded, of course - but it can be copied faithfully. It is permanent.