Quite honestly, sometimes I’m not sure how I feel about books. Paper books, I mean, like the ones currently clogging my bedside table and piled beside my keyboard. I catch myself sighing whenever I have to reach for the enumerated bulk of the Chicago Manual of Style, or as I hunt through my bookshelves for some half-remembered bit of information. We’ve spent 50 years freeing information from the prison of the paper book, making it ubiquitous, searchable and self-replicating, and so it is easy to wonder: what are physical books good for?
There are the obvious things. Readers of printed books revel in a visual and tactile experience that ebooks can’t match: paper books possess memories of their own, falling open at the page where last the reader lingered, and come alive in scribbled marginal notes and passages marked in fluorescent pen. Authors can be happy that book piracy is significantly lower when dealing with paper than with binary bits, and librarians know that the paper book is a superb archival medium, capable of surviving for centuries and readily repaired, rebound or scanned for digital transmission.
Then there are the weirdly artificial drawbacks with which ebooks encumber themselves: the encrypted ‘walled gardens’ of Amazon, Kobo and Google Play, for instance, have no counterpart in the real world. Your library of Google ebooks may not be accessible on your Kindle, but your hands and eyes are guaranteed to be compatible with paper books bought from any bookshop you care to name.
But none of this is news. Anyone with half an eye on the publishing industry will have heard the book-versus-ebook debate many times over. They will have seen sales figures spun one way or the other and they will have formed their own opinions as to the relative merits of physical books and their electronic cousins. No; to my mind, what sets the paper book apart is that it is not a product of the forced march of what we call innovation but rather one of organic evolution. Almost everything that makes a book look, feel, read, and even smell the way it does is a survival trait honed to a fine point by two millennia of human history.
Until the first century or thereabouts, books in the West were made from papyrus sheets pasted together to form scrolls many metres long on which authors and copyists wrote in newspaper-style columns. Scrolls were easy to make and to modify (it was a simple matter to paste in new sheets or to trim off old ones), but they were also fragile and unwieldy. Rolled-up scrolls required special shelves or cases for storage and protection, while in use they gradually degraded, worn away along their exposed bottom edges by the reader’s clothing. And reading a scroll was a chore in itself: the reader had to carefully reel it from one hand into the other – to scroll through it, if you like. To free the reader’s hands for note-taking or wine-drinking, the ingenious Romans wound their scrolls around wooden spindles and read them at desks equipped with pegs behind which the spindles could be wedged.
Of course, we don’t interact with books only when sitting comfortably at a desk, and neither did the Romans. When a Roman-about-town needed to write something down, they reached for a portable wooden writing tablet, or polyptych, covered in beeswax to receive the impression of a sharp stylus. The most common twofold writing tablets, or diptychs, comprised a pair of wooden slabs hinged together with leather thongs; held vertically in the usual fashion, to a modern eye they resemble nothing so much as a laptop computer.
Neither system was perfect. Scrolls were flimsy and bulky at the same time, and tablets were either too small for extended writing or too heavy to be portable. In hindsight, the solution was obvious: chop a scroll into equally-sized pages, stack them on top of one another and crease them along the gutter between adjacent columns. Pierce a few holes along the spine, sandwich the pages between diptych-inspired wooden tablets and tie everything together with some leather thongs, and there you are. The paged book, or codex, is born.
Perhaps all this was obvious at the time as well, because not a word was written about it until around 85 AD, when the poet Martial encouraged readers of his Epigrams to upgrade from scrolls to books as if moving from VHS to DVD:
You who long for my little books to be with you everywhere and want to have companions for a long journey, buy these ones which parchment confines within small pages: give your scroll-cases to the great authors – one hand can hold me.
Here Martial name-checks the next great advance in bookmaking – the arrival of animal-skin parchment as an alternative to fragile, brittle papyrus. Parchment had been invented by a Greek king named Eumenes some centuries earlier (or, more likely, parchment’s actual inventor had bowed and scraped and wisely dedicated the feat to Eumenes), and it had been waiting for its killer app ever since. The book, whose central spine caused papyrus folios to crack and tear along its length, was it.
Ergonomics and economics drove the development of this new medium. Papyrus books were rectangular to minimise the stress on their spines; parchment books were rectangular because the hides of cows, goats and sheep are essentially rectangular too, and parchment was too expensive to waste. Built-in covers made codices robust and double-sided pages made them space-efficient. The ‘random access’ afforded by riffling through a codex’s pages was a world away from the painstaking rolling and unrolling of a scroll. And page numbers, which are present even in the earliest surviving codex fragments, helped readers find their way in a manner that had never been possible within the scroll’s undifferentiated columns.
With the basic shape of the book settled, writers and readers were free to experiment with what lay within its pages. The table of contents arrived in the third century when Christian writers indexed the Gospels to make them easier to navigate. The word space appeared in the eighth century, when Irish monks unfamiliar with the language of the remote Roman Empire started to prise apart unspaced Latin writing. Punctuation, which had fallen by the wayside since its invention in the third century BC, was revived and revised by St Isidore of Seville and other religious writers seeking to clarify their words beyond reasonable doubt.
In time, the nascent bookmaking industry ushered in its own changes. Bookmakers turned from the ‘Coptic’ binding style of the earliest codices, where pages and covers were sewn to one another with a needle and thread, to ‘double-cord’ binding in which substantial cords or thongs formed vertebrae to which the pages and boards were sewn. (The raised bands that run across the spines of old leather hardbacks are there to accommodate the cords beneath.) Parchment was supplanted, grudgingly and gradually, by paper from mills established in Europe by Moorish invaders who had in turn learned their trade from the Chinese. Even the way the book’s text and images were applied to the page was changed out of all recognition: scribes and artists were elbowed aside by the lead soldiers of Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type and the grotesque woodcut blocks of Albrecht Dürer and his contemporaries.
All this is to say that the book has never stood still. The British Library’s 8th-century, £9m St Cuthbert Gospel may be as recognisably a book as a Gutenberg Bible or a Penguin Classic, but the book itself has been nipped and tucked and reinforced and streamlined on an ongoing basis ever since its invention.
And this, fundamentally, is the ebook’s problem. It isn’t the competing welter of walled-garden ecosystems, or that Kindles work only as long as the battery is charged, or that an ebook can never pick up a patina of use in the same way as its paper counterpart. The real problem is that we imprisoned two thousand years’ worth of bookish culture behind glass rectangles – we shoehorned a very old peg into a very new hole and expected everything to work the same way it always had. To borrow the words of designer Frank Chimero, we haven’t yet discovered the grain of the ebook in the same way that we implicitly understand that of the printed book. The ebook’s time will come, I’m sure of that, but lovers of the old fashioned paper book can rest easy – if history is anything to go by, it will be a long time coming.