For bibliophiles, here's a BBC article about the origin of the book, suggested by Roger Burdette. Thanks! -Editor
The book is changing. Electronic books, or ebooks, are more portable than their paper counterparts, capable of being carried in their
hundreds on a single reader or tablet. Thousands more are just a click away. It can be argued that ebooks are more robust than paper ones:
an ebook reader can be stolen or dropped in the bath, but the books on it are stored safely in the cloud, waiting to be downloaded onto a
new device. It is not too much to say that books and reading are in the throes of a revolution.
The odd thing is that the current angst over the book’s changing face mirrors a strikingly similar episode in history. Two thousand
years ago, a new and unorthodox kind of book threatened to overturn the established order, much to the chagrin of the readers of the
Reading a scroll
Scroll with it
Rome in the 1st Century CE was awash with the written word. Statues, monuments and gravestones were inscribed with stately capital letters;
citizens took notes and sent messages on wax-covered wooden writing tablets; and the libraries of the wealthy were stocked with books on
history, philosophy and the arts. But these were not books as we know them – they were scrolls, made from sheets of Egyptian papyrus pasted
into rolls anywhere from 4.5 to 16 metres (14.76ft to 52.49ft) in length. For all their ubiquity, however, they were not without their
The Newfangled Codex
Shrouded in mystery
Sometime in or before the First Century CE a new kind of book appeared that promised to address the scroll’s shortcomings. The evidence is
sparse but telling: archaeologists have discovered a few key scraps of papyrus whose text unexpectedly continues from the front to the
back, and whose neat margins one might expect to find in a paged book. And that is exactly what these fragments are: they are leaves from
the first paged books the world had ever seen. We know that the Romans called this new kind of book the codex (from caudex or tree trunk,
because of its similarity to their wooden writing tablets), but how the codex came to be in the first place is shrouded in mystery. The
first written mention of the codex appears in the words of a Roman poet named Martial, who encouraged his readers to buy his books in this
new, paged format:
“You who long for my little books to be with you everywhere and want to have companions for a long journey, buy these ones which
parchment confines within small pages: give your scroll-cases to the great authors – one hand can hold me.”
Written between 84 and 86 CE, Martial’s sales pitch tells us not only that paged books were known of in the First Century CE but also
that some of them, at least, were made from a new material called parchment. This alternative to papyrus, invented in a Greek city-state
some centuries earlier, was made from cleaned, stretched animal skins by means of a bloody and labour-intensive process, but its smoothness
and strength made it an ideal writing material. Archaeologists have since confirmed Martial’s claims via fragments of parchment codices
dated to the First Century – and yet, these few tantalising finds aside, we still know very little about where or why the codex was
invented, or who might have done so.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the paged book was a considerable step forward from the scroll. Codices leant themselves to being
bound between covers of wood or ‘pasteboard’ (pasted-together sheets of waste papyrus or parchment), which protected them from careless
readers. Their pages were easy to riffle through and, with the addition of page numbers, paved the way for indices and tables of contents.
They were space-efficient too, holding more information than papyrus scrolls of a comparable size
Yet the people of Rome, and of the lands surrounding it, were split over the merits of the codex. Rome’s pagan majority, along with the
Jewish population of the ancient world, preferred the familiar form of the scroll; the empire’s fast-growing Christian congregation, on the
other hand, enthusiastically churned out paged books containing Gospels, commentaries and esoteric wisdom. Of course, we know how this
story ends: by the Sixth Century, both paganism and the scroll were on the verge of extinction and Judaism had been firmly eclipsed by its
younger sibling. Pulled along in the wake of the Christian church, the paged book found its place in history and society.
The ebook of the 21st Century may not have as devout a following as the codex of the ancient world, but it inspires strong opinions
nonetheless. Will it displace the paper book in its turn, or will it be the one to go the way of the scroll? Time, and booksellers’ profit
margins, will tell.
To read the complete article, see:
The Mysterious Ancient Origins of the
Wayne Homren, Editor
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