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
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
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
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
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
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
For more on early manuscripts see Episodes 736 and 785.
For the history of the Encyclopaedia
Britannica, see Episode
For more about writing on bark, see Episode 1214.