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“the book: and the world was never the same again”

—Gutenberg was a lousy businessman.
—Venice was the Silicon Valley of printing in the 1400 and 1500’s.

For over 4,000 years, before a German goldsmith by the name of Gutenberg invented his printing press, people made and “printed” books by hand.  They wrote on clay tablets, bone, stone,  papyrus, animal skins, and wax.  The process was slow and laborious, and not many individuals engaged in this task.  But at least it got things going.

tablets made of clay not aluminum

Mesopotamian clay tablet with pictographs (replica)

It all started in Mesopotamia, that cradle of civilization; and in the beginning, it was all about money—keeping track of who owed whom money.  As agriculture developed, people needed some system to keep track of the exchange of goods–goats, loaves of bread, bags of grain–bought and sold.  The Sumerians, an early society that farmed there, invented cuneiform, which means “wedge writing” in Latin.  Cuneiform, a picture form of writing, was written by a wedge-shaped stylus on damp clay tablets, then baked until hard.  The Sumerians even had huge libraries where they shelved their clay tablets.  Of course, clay tablets have a way of easily breaking when they fall off a shelf, so not many have survived.  But interestingly enough, the concept of reading from a tablet has been reinvented in the 21st century…only now they’re called Nooks, Ipads, and Kindles.

scrolls not scrolling

Next up, come the Egyptians, who began writing about the same time, only their written characters were called hieroglyphics, Greek for “sacred carving.”  The Egyptians refused to use clay tablets, and wrote with reed pens on scrolls made of papyrus, a reed that grows in the marshes near the Nile River.  They beat the stalks into “paper” and glued the pieces into long scrolls—one of which is a 133 feet long—a few feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty.  Interestingly enough, we now “scroll” through our 21st century tablets, the Nooks, Ipads, and Kindles.

then came books

Finally, we come to the book, or codex (Latin for “trunk of tree” or “block of wood”), for which the Romans deserve credit.  They started sewing groups of papyrus sheets together and binding them along one edge, and placing the sewn pages or book block between two wooden covers.  Papyrus paper was replaced (it becomes brittle with age and deteriorates under humidity) by parchment–paper made from the skins of sheep–or vellum– paper made from the skins of calves.   Parchment has a fairly long shelf life, can be written on both sides,  and  erased by scraping the skin and used again.

But books remained labor intensive, costly, and read by only a few people.  Only the rich could afford to own books because parchment or vellum was expensive—very expensive.  It might take the skin of a whole sheep to make parchment for one manuscript, and a thick book might require an entire herd.

Much of the population didn’t read, and manuscripts (manuscript comes from Latin for “handwritten”) were not written in the common languages, but in Latin.    It fell to the monks and their cats (okay, so I’m taking a bit of literary license to include cats) to continue the job of making books.  Monks worked in rooms called scriptoriums, where they copied manuscripts, hand-binding them into books.  Not only did they copy the lettering in manuscripts, but they also illuminated or decorated the manuscripts using vivid colors to enhance the lettering or borders (marginalia) or to draw miniature illustrations.  Bright colors and gold were used to embellish the letters or paint whole scenes.  Over time, the illuminations took up more room in the book so that by the 14th and 15th centuries, almost the entire book was made up of illuminations.   As Alice in Wonderland said, “And what is the use of a book without pictures…?”

go gutenberg

But the book world was soon turned upside down by an invention of a German goldsmith named Gutenberg.  The components of the printing press were there, but Gutenberg tweaked and pulled together all the disparate elements, and society was never the same again.  He took existing wine technology—screw-type wine presses that were plentiful in the Rhine Valley—but rather than pressing grapes to make wine, he pressed metal type against paper to make books.  Gutenberg’s real genius was the invention of moveable metal type, which meant hundreds of thousands of books were produced in a relative short time at much cheaper prices.

Printing press similar to the one invented by Gutenberg. From: Ars memorativa Gulielmi Leporei Avallonensis … :Le Lièvre, Guillaume. Courtesy: National Library of Medicine.

Despite his invention, Gutenberg was an  inefficient printer; other printers did more profitable work using his invention.  And he was a lousy businessman, ending up in bankruptcy court twice and losing his equipment to his creditors.

Printers also produced books in the common languages of Europe, English, French, German, and Italian.  More people could read, and more people learned to read.  Illustrations were now done by woodblock cuts, which could easily be reproduced by the press.  The day of painstakingly hand-done illuminated manuscripts gradually faded.

The printing press technology spilled out over Germany’s borders across all of Europe.   By the beginning of the 1500’s, there were approximately 250 printing shops across the continent:  Paris got her first press in 1470, London, in 1476, while Venice was awash in printing presses, becoming the Silicon Valley of printers.   And in the United States?  The first print shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts began printing in 1639, 19 years after the arrival of the Mayflower.  (Just to keep things in perspective, America’s first hospital was founded in 1751 in Philadelphia.)  Scholars estimate that there might have been between 25,000 and 30,000 books in Europe before the invention of the press.  Several decades later, between 10-13 million books had been printed.

The printing press paved the way for all sorts of revolutions, including the Protestant Reformation.  In fact, citizens in countries that embraced Protestantism (England, Germany, and Switzerland, for example) were more literate than those in predominantly Catholic countries.  The Bible was now published in their vernacular, and they were expected to read the Bible, and not have some priest read it for them.

 And how did the Catholic Church react to Gutenberg’s press?  Well, it had a field day and full time job banning or censoring books—which turned out to be a much more difficult task than imagined.  (In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII required that Church authorities approve all books before publication.)  It was a fairly easy task to censor or ban a limited number of manuscripts…but how could one ban or censor thousands of books?

then comes heavy metal

Gutenberg’s press was made out of wood—not the most durable of materials.  The type was set by hand, a laborious task.  Even a skilled composer could set only 2,000 characters or letters per hour.  (You can “set” 140 characters on Twitter in less than a minute.)  Manufacturing presses in iron or steel moved things along a lot faster as well as the power boosters, steam and electricity.  For example, a Mr. Fredrick Koeing invented a stream-driven press in 1812 which could print 400 sheets an hour.  And the printing miracles didn’t stop there.  A rotary press could print 8,000 copies per hour.  A Bullcock Press could print paper on a roll…one no longer needed to feed paper by hand.  The Bullock could print 12,000 pages per hours and later models could produce up to 30,000 pages per hour.

Setting type by hand was soon replaced by a mechanical process—the linotype and monotype machines.  As an operator typed on a keyboard, letters or symbols would be produced in metal.  Then we entered the 21st century and printing took another turn.  Then came the electronic revolution.

what is a book?

“F**k them is what I say.  I hate those books.  They can not be the future.
They may well be.  I will be dead.  I won’t give a s**t.”

—Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

Buying a book in the 16th or 17th century was a labor of love and labor.  Although the invention of the printing press made books more readily available, one did not go to the local bookstore to buy a book.  There were no bookstores at this time, although the European continent did have periodic book fairs where vendors brought books on horse-drawn carts.

Bookstores, defined as retail shops with multiple publishers, were a fairly late invention, making their appearance in the 19th century.  The bookshop was fueled by another technological advance: The binding of books also changed. Hand-made leather bindings were replaced by factory-generated bindings—pages sewn by a machine and encased between two cardboard covers covered with book cloth—the book as we know it today.

But before the bookshop’s appearance, the purchase of a book was a bit more elaborate.   For example, a wealthy British lady would send her household steward to London to purchase the unbound pages of the book from the printer (printers did not bind the loose pages) which he then took to a stationer’s shop for binding.  (Middle class buyers often bought just the unbound sheets or might bind the sheets in cheap leather or with a leather thong in one corner). The shop often had a contract with a binder, who would purchase the leather from a local tanner and then fold, sew, and bind the sheets in fine leather, often embossing the family seal on the cover.  Should Madam want the black and white woodcut prints colored, the stationer often hired women and children—cheap labor—to color the illustrations.  So street urchins, the unmarried daughter of the printer, or the younger children of men in the printing trade would color the drawings.  Of course, children often colored outside the lines—an allure that only adds to the romance of the book.

And when the book finally arrived home after its long journey, excitement ensued over the purchase of the latest treasure.

So I choose to continue in a century’s old tradition, the purchase of a book.  There is a certain romance in leafing through the pages, an act that appeals to the senses.  You can hold a book close to your heart, bend down the page corners, underline, and have the book fall open to a favorite page.  And children can color outside the lines only on a page of a paper.

After all, a real book has infinite battery life, its pages always load, and it’s immune to viruses.  It is vibration and drop-resistant.  And even if you throw it against the wall, it will survive intact.