A history of the book in photos

In this series of photos, I take a quick look at the history of books through the ages and pose some questions for publishing students to consider. While the history of the book might seem like something you would study for amusement rather than professional development, there are many insights that it can offer even modern students.

Although written communication has been around for at least 3500 years, literacy has for centuries remained a very restricted technology closely associated with the exercise of power. Today, debates about the how the internet is changing communication may seem louder and more frustrating than ever before, but the technologies that encase ideas – the book, telegraph, radio, television – have always been subject to often harsh mediation.

In the Middle Ages, books were restricted to those who could afford them, usually nobles and churches, and as we saw not long ago, the concept of bibliomania was used in the 19th century  to draw boundaries between readers with higher and lower status.

So, when thinking about the future of communications technologies, it’s helpful to trace the ways in which the technologies that have encased ideas have developed to the present day, when debates still rage about whether traditional publishing is preferable to self-publishing, whether Kindles are better than paperbacks and whether journalists are being overtaken by citizen journalists and bloggers.

1. Scrolls

Hebrew Sefer Torah Scroll
Hebrew Sefer Torah Scroll, approximately 400 years old. Image courtesy of Firewal JC/Flickr/Creative commons

When Pliny wrote about scrolls in the first century AD they had already been used for millennia. Although they obviously did the job for the time, scrolls did have some limitations that led to their eventual abandonment: storage was cumbersome, a single text would often have to be divided into multiple scrolls, and continual rolling and unrolling tended to damage them. Having said that, it’s interesting to think that today, the word ‘scroll’ has survived to describe how we interact with digital texts. This movement, while it might seem insignificant, is a key concern for digital content writers, and something that reminds online writers to always keep the way their audiences read in mind.

2. Codexes

Digitisation of the Codex Gigas
The Devil’s Codex. Image courtesy of National Library of Sweden/Flickr/Creative commons

Being a collection of pages stitched together at one side, the codex is the original precursor to the book. Codexes gave early readers many advantages over papyrus scrolls and wax tablets: readers could open them at any point in the text and scribes could write on both sides of parchment more easily.

While today we take for granted how easy it is to open a book to any point we like, the codex allowed the kind of discontinuous reading that the internet hyperlink is famous for. Readers could locate and catalogue relevant information in a quicker and more efficient manner than ever before. Here, medieval and modern technology meet in these photos of the digitisation of the Gigas Codex (latin for the ‘giant book’), the largest-known medieval manuscript in existence today.

The Gigas Codex is sometimes known as ‘the Devil’s Codex’ for the large image of the devil that appears within. According to legend, it was made with the devil’s assistance by a monk who was locked in his monastic cell and instructed to produce the manuscript in one night. Unable to, the monk enlisted the help of the devil and included an image of him as acknowledgement of his help.

Interestingly, scholars have debated whether or not the Gigas Codex was ever actually used. It may be that its impressive size was simply a way of communicating the importance of its biblical contents. And while it may seem irrelevant, the issues of a book’s size has not disappeared for modern publishing students.

Publishers today, aware of the often fragmented reading habits of their often time-poor audiences – on the tram after work, in the park while walking the dog – use abridged versions of their backlist to target sales to readers who might be too busy to consider lifting up a heftier tomb, and pocket editions of classic bestsellers are often successful because of their approachable size.

3. Printed books

A single leaf from an incomplete copy of the Gutenberg Bible /   Feuillet d’un exemplaire incomplet de la Bible de Gutenberg
A single leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. Image courtesy of BiblioArchives/LibraryArchives/Flickr/Creative commons

The advent of Johan Gutenberg’s printing press in the middle of the 15th century has been compared to the internet for its effect on reading habits. Printed books were not only more affordable than handwritten books, but they could be produced at a much faster rate. In this sense, the invention of the press has been closely associated with the rise of mass media.

However, it’s equally significant that today, as many commentators have pointed out, the mass-media model for book production is fast becoming outdated, with the internet catering to niche interests in a way that mass blockbusters and predictable plot lines cannot.

Niche-interest oriented magazines in particular are finding success more easily than mass-oriented magazines. This raises an interesting question for publishers: do we aim for the bestselling blockbuster, or target our books towards enthusiastic niche audiences?

4. Blogs and eBooks

Blogs: graveyard fodder or democratising innovation? Image courtesy of Diminita/Flickr/Creative commons

A friend of mine once said that the internet is a graveyard of abandoned blogs. While there is much truth to this – with more than two million blogs being written each day, blogging represents an important change in  communications practices for publishers and editing students to pay attention to.

Blogs highlight the way in which communications practices have transitioned from top-down models where information is disseminated and left largely static once it’s published, to a more dynamic, conversation-based approach where readers can interact immediately with writers and creators.

Multiform storytelling thrives on blogs, with mixed content like video, images and text all interacting to create a more effective and memorable way to convey a message, something that, when it’s done well, can be a significant advantage over traditional text-only communication.

5. Zines and self-published paperback books

untitled 1 cover + poster
Handmade zines, not dissimilar to self-published novels. Image courtesy of masha krasnova-shabaeva/Flickr/Creative commons

Self-published paperback books are one of the most contentious forms of self-publishing. They are related to zines (pictured) – self-produced, handmade magazines – but unlike zines, it is often impossible to tell the difference between a self-published book and a traditionally published book, such is the quality of online publishing and printing services.

Self-publishing services are hailed by many as a democratic alternative for people struggling to have their book published by traditional publishers, but one of the major concerns about self-publishing for editors is the lack of fact checking.

The way that self-publishers are trying to correct this is an interesting area for editors and publishers to watch: enthusiastic communities of editors, designers and clever marketers have been built to support self-published writers, creating an almost subversive collaborative alternative to the fairly closed-off world of traditional publishing. It’s an area that publishers looking for a way to appeal to modern audiences should spare some thought for.


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