Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1775:
THE BOOK, THEN AND NOW

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the book, eighty-one years later. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I just looked up the word book in the 1897 and 1978 Encyclopaedia Britannicas. A century ago, we were told that a book was "the common name for any literary production of bulk." Now it's "a non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages."

Much has changed, but neither encyclopedia describes books as rectangular blocks of pages with a cover. Dictionaries report common usage, so they do give such a definition. But encyclopedias are more ambitious. They try to tell a full and accurate story.

What we call a book can take many forms. For ancient Romans, it was usually a single roll of papyrus. Their word for such a scroll was volumen, our word volume. That comes from another Latin word, volvere -- to bend or to turn. That's where we get revolve. A volume is a book bent around a spindle.

The word book is kin to the German Buch, which might come from beigen (also to bend) or from buche, the bark of a tree. Bark was once a common European writing material.

The old Britannica gives all this etymology. The new one is much more brief. The old article tells about the history of papyrus, inks, vellum, and parchment, and about the invention of paper. However, much of its history is very incorrect.

Far more of that history is now known, but we have to dig further to find it. The old Britannica lovingly tells us that writing on both sides of a page is called opisthography. That practice is now so common that we no longer name it. We also find the word palimpsest. That's a parchment whose original writing was scraped off and which was reused for a new text.

Only specialists had ever heard the word palimpsest until someone recently discovered a twelfth-century prayer book. Scribes had written it on a recycled tenth-century copy of an Archimedes book. Scientists made headlines when they finally read Archimedes' long-lost text under specially filtered light.

But if this discovery has rehabilitated the word palimpsest, most of this lore has faded back into the treatises. The old two-page section on the book has now been cut to a column and a half. The old one-page section on bookselling has vanished entirely.

And the longest section, three-and-a-half pages on bookbinding, has been shrunk to half a column. Up through the early nineteenth century, bookbinding was a high art, done in special shops separate from the printer. By the time this old Britannica came out, single publishers were now almost always producing entire finished books -- binding included. But old technologies die hard. And scholars who wrote encyclopedias still grooved on book-binding.

Now in a world of pixel pages, unsewn and unbound, the only cover is the un-noticed plastic frame of our monitors. And I'm left with a clawing curiosity about the entry our grandchildren will find under the word book in the Britannica of 2097.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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See the entries under book, bookselling, and book binding in the 1897 and 1978 Encyclopaedia Britannicas.

For more on the Archimedes palimpset, see: Text Recovery from the Archimedes Palimpsest

For more on the invention of the codex (the kind of book that is familiar to us) see Episode 687.

For more on the development of paper, parchment, and inks, see Episodes 1027, 611, 894, 1051, 1052, 1456, and many others.

For more on nineteenth-century book-making, see Episodes 1636 and 1694.

For more on early manuscripts see Episodes 736 and 785.

For the history of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, see Episode 1710.

For more about writing on bark, see Episode 1214.



Books: Old and New
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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.