The more you know


Supporters of the digital revolution or fond of the “paper and ink” book? While discussing the present and future of books, it is good to remember that this is not the first – and not the largest – revolution in their history …

The clay tablets

How were the books born? We are around 4000 B.C. therefore, as you can imagine, very far from the book as we understand it today. To be honest, no form of writing has even appeared before this time. It is the Sumerians, the ancient people who lived in southern Mesopotamia, who invented the first documented writing system: cuneiform writing. The marks were impressed with a pointed tool on a clay tablet which was then dried. The incisions were short and arranged in a pyramidal shape, to see them they are reminiscent of wedges.

The papyrus rolls

We must take a leap forward in time to admire the first papyrus rolls. The first findings date back to 2400 BC. and they originate from Egypt. Papyrus is obtained from the marrow of the homonymous plant that grows along the banks of the Nile. The marrow, extracted from the stem, was cut into strips, pressed, glued and dried. The result? A sheet on which you could write with a sharp quill, made from the stem of a cane. The individual sheets were then glued in rolls that even reached 16 meters in length. The text (placed on the internal facade of the scroll) was ordered in columns a few centimeters wide.

The papyri were rolled up and stored in wooden tubes. Their consultation, let’s face it, was not among the most practical: the rolls were wrapped on bulky wooden sticks and had to be unrolled with the help of both hands. Another drawback: papyrus is a fragile material subject to wear and humidity. Far from its sweet native climate, the warm and temperate one of the Mediterranean basin can easily rot.

The parchment, one of the best supports for writing

Around the 2nd century BC a new writing support appears: the parchment, a membrane obtained from calcined, clean and stretched animal skin. In this way a thin, very smooth, resistant and elastic surface was obtained. The finest parchments are still considered one of the best writing aids – not surprisingly they were used until the 14th century AD.

What are its origins? We must look to Greece. The name parchment derives from the city of Pergamum, where one of the largest libraries in the world was located, rivaling only the Library of Alexandria. In the period in which the papyrus began to be scarce and the parchments became a perfect alternative.

The wax tablets, the ancient “tablets”

In ancient Rome and Greece, wax tablets began to circulate much more practical than previous writing aids. These are small blocks of wood that were covered with layers and layers of wax and engraved with the tip of a stylus (made of wood, metal, bone or ivory). The tablets could be scraped and reused. They had an innovative shape: the tablets (reminiscent of the current tablets) were joined together at one end through rope or iron wires. We are facing the ancestor of ring binders and bound books.

Codes, real books

We have come to the biggest revolution in the history of the book. A revolution that, just like the one we are experiencing today, has aroused mixed reactions in readers. The Romans called them “codes”, a name that derives from the Latin caudex (bark, tree trunk). The codes had the appearance of the book as we understand it today: they were protected by a wooden cover (or glued papyrus or parchment sheets) and inside they kept papyrus sheets written on both sides.

The great revolution lies in the convenience of the format: the codes were smaller in size, the pages were easy to browse and the page numbers and index helped to consult.

Despite this, the pagans and the Jewish people were still very attached to the tradition of the scroll and very wary of the novelty. On the other hand, however, there was the Christian community, which instead had enthusiastically accepted the new discovery, with the monks transcribing prayers and sacred texts on the codes. In the Middle Ages, Christianity was decisive in the affirmation of the “new books”, which became a very important means of transmitting literary works.

Illuminated manuscripts, real works of art

It is good to remember that as early as 105 AD, in distant China, Cai Lun had invented paper. Still, however, you have to wait a little while to see the first book bound with paper pages. In 400-600 AD the first illuminated manuscripts appear on parchment sheets. These precious books were handwritten by the monks, decorated with precious materials such as silver and gold, colored with bright hues and enriched with detailed illustrations.

Of the real works of art with a fundamental role: if it had not been transcribed on illuminated manuscripts, much of the ancient Greek and Roman literature would not have come to us.

The first printed book

A nice fragment of the history of the book coincides with the history of printing, which we can start from the 6th century AD, when the first printing process with wooden blocks was invented in China. The block of wood, with characters carved in relief, was wet with ink and printed on the sheet, as a stamp. One of the first texts printed with this system – or, at least, one of the oldest that has come to us – is a copy of the Diamond Sutra, dated 868 A.D .: it is a roll made up of six sheets of paper over five meters long.

The movable type and the Gutenberg Bible

We have reached another decisive stage in the history of the book and the most important in the history of printing: the invention of movable type. We remain in China, because it is here that in 1041 the typographer Bi Sheng invents the movable characters in clay. In 1298, Wang Zhen perfected the invention: he replaces wood with clay and invents a system of revolving tables that improves the printing technique. Who will perfect and bring this system to Europe is the German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg. The first book printed with the new machine is the “Gutenberg Bible”, which was born on February 23, 1455 with a print run of 180 copies. Of these only twenty have reached us.

If you want to learn more about the various printing techniques, we advise you to read the article: A brief history of printing. From the 6th century to today. Here we limit ourselves to appreciating the enormous consequences that this invention brought to the history of the book: production times and costs were reduced, print runs increased dramatically, as did the number of people who could access books and therefore knowledge – just think that at the end of the fifteenth century, printing was widespread in over 200 European countries, with a production of over 20 million books.

The classics in pocket format
In 1501 the first paperbacks of the classics in Greek and Latin were born. Aldo Pio Manuzio was an Italian editor, grammarian and humanist, remembered for two discoveries that we could not fail to mention in our history: he invented the pocket format – small and cheap books – and introduced the cursive type, whose compact letters helped to save space. Thanks to these discoveries, many more “gentlemen” could own books and, if necessary, put them in their pockets to read them when and where they preferred.

The era of digital books
We end this journey by making a nice leap forward that catapults us in the early seventies of the twentieth century. In this period the Gutenberg Project gives birth to the first e-books. For several years, however, digital books are produced with one goal: to archive some works, mostly books in the public domain. Only in the 21st century did the digital format begin to be considered for publication. In 2000, the first e-book book came out: Stephen King’s novel “Riding the Bullet”. Think that over 400,000 copies are sold in one day. A few years later, in 2007, Amazon released the Kindle, the first e-book reader, also stormed by readers.

Today we are in full e-book era. This, however, does not mean that “paper and ink” books are becoming extinct. Printed books coexist with their “digital grandchildren”, and continue to fascinate us with their irreplaceable smell of printed paper.

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