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Short book history

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The history of the book is that of a series of technical innovations that have improved the quality of access to information, portability, and the cost of production. But considered from the artistic or collection point of view, the book emerges from the bibliophilia, a passion that goes back to antiquity.

Writing materials before the book


Writing is the prerequisite for the existence of the text and therefore of the book. It is a coding that allows to transmit and to keep abstract notions.

The earliest writings have as support clay or stone tablets. They were replaced by volumen, papyrus rolls, lighter and therefore easier to transport. The volumen is rolled up on itself. In liturgical usage, as for the Torah, it is rolled up around two vertical wooden axes. It allows only a sequential use: one is obliged to read the text in the order in which it is written and it is impossible to place a marker to go directly to a specific place. On this aspect, it is comparable to our videocassettes. In addition, the reader has both hands busy holding the vertical axes and therefore can not write at the same time as it reads.

Gradually the parchment replaces the papyrus. Made from animal skins, it allows a better conservation in time.

Codex is a revolution comparable to the invention of writing. The writing is no longer a continuous roll, but a set of sheets connected to the back. As a result, it becomes possible to go directly to a specific place in the text, and to compare different points of the same work, which is very useful for the study of holy texts. Codex is also easier to place on a table, allowing the reader to take notes at the same time as reading.

Middle Ages

The codex form improves with word separation, uppercase and punctuation, which facilitate silent reading, and then with tables of contents and indexes, which facilitate direct access to information. This form is so effective, that it is still that of the book, more than 500 years after its appearance.

The book, modern times

Old books from the Merton College Library, Oxford University, UK (Old books from the Merton College Library, Oxford University, UK, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_book_bindings.jpg)

The paper gradually replaces the parchment from the fourteenth century onwards. Less expensive to produce, it allows a wider diffusion. It is then a paper produced from old boiled and pressed fabrics, hence the name “rags“.

Printing marks the entry of the book into the industrial era. The book is no longer a single object, written or reproduced on demand. The publishing of a book becomes a business, requiring capital for its realization and a market for its diffusion. In return, the cost of each copy drops very sharply, which considerably increases the spread of the book.

The book of codex form and printed on paper, as it still exists today, dates from the end of the 15th century.

Books printed before 1 January 1501 are called “incunabula“.

Contemporary period

Book published in 1866 (Book published in 1866, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Picture_book_1866.jpg)

No major innovation took place in the production of the book between the end of the 15th and the end of the 20th century. On the other hand, new types of documents appeared in the 19th century: photography, sound recordings and cinema.

The paperback appeared in France on February 9, 1953, marketed by Hachette at the initiative of Henri Filipacchi. By its relatively low cost, it allows a real democratization of the book. But the “pocket” format has existed since the 17th century, notably for prohibited works that must be discreet: Protestant works in France, libertine books… The “pocket” format is widespread in the nineteenth century (many romantic editions – Éditions Lemerre, for example).

The break occurs in the 1990s. Applied to editing, digital coding, which transforms both text and images, whether fixed or animated, or sounds, into a sequence of 0 and 1, is probably an invention of same order as writing. Hypertext further improves direct access to information, as did codex in its day. Finally, telecommunications systems such as the Internet reduce production and distribution costs, such as printing in the late Middle Ages.

It is difficult to predict the future of the book. An important part of the reference information, intended for direct access and not for sequential reading, such as encyclopaedias, is becoming less and less in book form and increasingly online. The use of the e-book is still quite marginal today, despite a very strong increase in market share in the United States, notably thanks to the different tablets and e-readers, such as the Kindle readers of Amazon.

However, we can think that the codex form still has a future for everything that requires a sequential reading or for books that are as much (beautiful) objects as information media: novels, essays, comics, art books, etc.

Tramslation from Wikipedia

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