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A Short History of Books
Here at Pathenaeum, we’re well aware of all the fantastic benefits which derive from reading. Indeed, that’s why we launched in July 2019, to offer our superb book subscriptions to children around the UK.
What did people do before Pathenaeum though? How did they obtain and enjoy their books? Of course, modern book shops have been available for many years, but in this short article we’re going further back, to explore Pathenaeum’s literary heritage.
The oldest preserved writing is around five-thousand years old, and comes from Mesopotamia (the modern Middle East). This writing is called ‘cuneiform’, which means ‘wedge-shaped’, because it was written by using a wedge-shaped or triangular stick on a wet clay tablet. Cuneiform must have been a popular and effective method of writing, as it was used for millennia by the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Incredibly, over half a million of these clay tablets have survived until today. How much of our literature do you think will still be around in a few thousand years? Interestingly, or not, the vast majority of these tablets actually record rather banal information, typically bureaucratic lists of taxes and supplies and such.
The earliest recorded writing in ancient Egypt is almost as old as cuneiform, although this writing consisted of inscriptions on the walls of temples and tombs, and therefore isn’t really comparable to books. We have to wait a few hundred years until the first book-like materials appear, although these weren’t clay tablets like the Mesopotamians used. Instead, the Egyptians used papyrus sheets. The papyrus plant is a type of reed, which the ancient Egyptians transformed into sheets through a process of pressing and drying and cutting. These sheets were then joined into single scrolls, which could be over forty metres long! Egyptian scribes would write on these in the hieratic script, which is a more cursive form of the famous hieroglyphics.
Scrolls were widely adopted throughout the Classical world. Parchment (or vellum) – stretched animal skin – replaced papyrus as the most common material used. A scroll was rolled at each end around a wooden axel, and these axels could be progressively unwound to reveal the text for reading. This necessitated that the reader use both hands to open the scroll. It was also impossible to use any sort of bookmark with a scroll, which must have been very frustrating. Alongside scrolls, the Romans also used wax tablets for everyday purposes. These could be written on with a sharp tool called a stylus, and then rubbed smooth again for reuse.
The practical problems with the scrolls caused them to later be replaced with the codex, what we would recognise as a proper book. Rather than one, long roll of parchment, a codex consisted of a series of sheets all attached along one edge. The great advantage of this format was that it was far easier to look for and find something within the text. Unlike a scroll, a codex can have a table of contents, to help the reader find particular sections on specified pages. A codex can also be browsed more easily, and can be left open on a desk to facilitate copying and studying. The codex was such a successful design, in fact, that it remains the standard book form today, over 1,500 years later.
These ancient books, however, were still very different from our modern books at Pathenaeum, due to one vital missing ingredient: paper! Paper was first invented in China around 100 A.D. Its uses there expanded over the subsequent centuries to include toilet paper, paper currency, and even tea bags. This invention spread to the Islamic world, and then to Europe by the 11th Century.
Paper was cheaper than parchment, less than a quarter of the cost, but paper books were still expensive. This was because all books had to be copied and written out by hand, which was a very time-consuming process. Each handwritten book, therefore, represented many hours of skilled labour, hence its value. In the early Middle Ages, monasteries were the primary producers of such texts, since monks copied and conserved many books for their prayers and their studies.
All this changed in the mid-15th Century, with the invention of the printing press, which is arguably one of the most important inventions in human history. Rather than copying out a book individually and by hand, the printing press enabled books to be produced and published on an industrial scale. The individual printing components (i.e. the letters and punctuation), could then be rearranged to print something different; this is called ‘moveable type’. This dramatically lowered the cost of books, and thus increased the market for their distribution. The Gutenberg Bible - named after Johannes Gutenberg, its printer – was the first major book to be printed with this technology, in 1455 A.D. The printing press was gradually refined and improved, of course, and nowadays we have electrical printers. But the great technological innovation, which produced all the fundamental elements and which was the basis for subsequent incremental improvements, can be attributed to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention.
The books which Pathenaeum provides today are, of course, very different from those ancient clay tablets and papyrus scrolls. Those tablets and scrolls, however, were the first steps in the development of books and literature. Throughout the subsequent millennia, this development continued, and finally resulted in the books which you enjoy today. Here at Pathenaeum, we like to think that our book subscriptions are another step in this development, using a modern online service to regularly provide the very best books for your children.
Sources and Further Reading
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