Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

what we read when we read

At a working library I read this:

In ancient days, written texts were inscribed on long pieces of parchment that were then rolled up on either side. The reader could unroll a short segment at a time in order to expose a manageable amount of text. It was called a “scroll.”

Scrolls weren’t the most user-friendly device. They didn’t stack well for storage; they could be hard to manage, often requiring two hands to read; and they required a strict linear reading—skipping around just wasn’t practical. Along the way, someone eventually got the idea to fold the parchment instead of rolling it up. Now the text could be stored flat, and the reader could flip to a later place in the text easier than before. This was called a “codex.”

The codex went through several revisions. It was sometimes wrapped in animal skins to protect it; in some places, a single folded piece of parchment (with the folded edges to the outside) was replaced with several sheets stitched together, folded edges on the inside. Different mechanisms for holding the paper together and protecting it arose in different parts of the world. In time, the codex evolved into bound sheets of paper wrapped with a stiff cover that allowed it to be stored upright. This new format was given a new name: it was called a “book.”

This leads our author to say that the e-book won't really come into its own until it gets its own name. But the history here isn’t quite right. A book in Greek was biblos throughout the shift from scroll to codex; in Latin liber. (Though liber is often used for a section of a larger work, an opus.) Writers didn't write scrolls or codexes, or for that matter papyri or clay tablets: they wrote books. “Book” is a concept — a rather elastic one — rather than a technology. I could read the Odyssey via clay tablets or a set of scrolls or a Penguin paperback or a Kindle and I would still be reading a book.

a working library a fine blog, though.