How long have we had books? What about printed books?

Who knows when the first book was actually produced? How long does a piece of writing have to be for us to call it a book anyway? No length at all: we are perfectly happy to accept the existence of blank books. Books are not just physical objects; the are also intellectual output. Within this definitional haze, we have agreed that the oldest complete dated printed book in the world is The Diamond Sutra which may be seen from time to time at The British Library. It is dated May 868 AD. What’s the oldest handwritten book? Hard to be certain, but obviously much older. Papyrus scrolls are subject to decay and don’t just leap out of the ground shouting “I’m here, I’m here”. We have found papyrus scrolls dating back to 1,500 – 1,800 BC. (The Dead Sea Scrolls are relatively modern; consensus dates them to the last three centuries BC.) Maybe we could think of the Epic of Gilgamesh in cuneiform on clay tablets as a book, but apparently the text wasn’t really finalized till about the 12th century BC.

Epic of Gilgamesh. Photo Getty Images


But let’s leave all these bits of clay and scrolls to one side and focus on what we tend to think of as a book: a number of folded pages bound into a pair of covers. The codex, as such an object is named, was allegedly originally invented to deal with Christian literature in 2nd century Rome. (No doubt that statement is too bald by several orders of magnitude — the folks around at the time didn’t leave us firm evidence, so we try conjecture and balancing of evidence.) The earliest known reference however is from Martial in the 1st century, who encouraged his readers to buy his poems in this new format which takes up less space than a scroll and is more comfortable to hold in one hand. Let’s just start the life of the codex in the second century and, although manuscript codices can obviously still be produced*, mark its ending with the printing of Gutenberg’s Bible in 1454. So the reign of the manuscript book lasted for about 1,200 years: let’s just say 1,100 years, since that would neatly represent twice as long as the current lifespan of the printed book, which, despite some recent panic, doesn’t yet look doomed to being superseded by the ebook.

Yes, what we think of as a book has been around for about 550 years: a third of the time we have had codices, and maybe a sixth of the time we’ve had books.

But during these 550 years we’ve been busy. We got off to a quick start, and have been accelerating ever since. Peter Stoicheff informs us in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, “the press itself was small and cheap enough that within fifty years of its invention Europe contained at least 200 of them, and they produced more books in that short time than had been produced by hand to that point in history”. (You can see this spread dynamically in the map linked to at my post Atlas of early printing.) Our book output built slowly and steadily. “Prior to 1750, approximately one hundred new titles were published annually in England; by 1825 approximately 600 annually; by the end of the nineteenth century approximately 6,000”. We were up to 184,000 in 2013.

The British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalogue now records over 29,000 titles which more or less corresponds to the output of those 200 presses over those 50 years. Of course the older the item, the more likely it is to have disappeared without a trace, but we can only deal with what we can deal with, and I take this to mean Professor Stoicheff is telling us that we know of something like 29,000 manuscript books produced from the first to the fifteenth century. This means, I guess, that every couple of months now we publish more books than ever existed prior to Gutenberg’s revolution. No wonder we suffer from angst about what to read next.


* In the late 1650s there was a newspaper issued twice a week by Henry Muddiman, handwritten and distributed to a select group of subscribers. In Dawk’s News-Letter (1696-1716), Ichabod Dawks exploited the personalization implied by the handwritten format by setting his newsheet in a specially designed typeface, Scriptorial English No. 2, leaving a space at the top so that the subscriber’s name could be entered by hand after the text had been run off.


We are all inclined to judge our contemporaries, especially the younger generation, as lacking all discipline — strict adherence to which was of course so signally a feature of our youth. In particular we inveigh about shorter and shorter attention spans allegedly being visited upon our young people by social media and the internet.

In 1681 Richard Waller addressed himself “To the Reader” in a manuscript volume, The Poems of Albius Tibullus, advising his attention-span-challenged readers: “I have divided some of the Elegies into three or more Parts which I did to render them more taking and agreeable to the Genius of the Age; their length being tedious to a light, airie, & volatile witte.”

Our contemporary light, airy, and volatile Twitter-wits turn out to be rather similar to their confrères of 330 years ago. But old men are expected to be curmudgeonly and bitch about the genius of the age. Here’s George Steiner having a go in 2011: writing of the language of philosophy and poetry discussed in The Poetry of Thought, he allows as how “the vocabulary and grammar in which it is set out, are already archaic. . . They accord poorly with the reduction of literary texts on screens or the anti-rhetoric of the blog. . . The new technologies pluck at the heart of speech. In the United States, eight- to eighteen-year-olds log about eleven hours of daily engagement with electronic media. . . Silence and privacy, the classical coordinates of encounters with the poem and the philosophic statement, are becoming ideologically, socially suspect luxuries.”

Now that book is by no means an easy read (but it is nevertheless available out there and must be being read by some), but whatever Professor Steiner may say that’s not how the world looks to this anti-rhetorical blogger. When I was young I knew many a volatile wit, including myself — I can actually remember the moment at which I discovered that concentration was achievable. No doubt there are still lots of unwilling school-children, but the rates of frivolity and seriousness have to be similar to those in the past: human nature didn’t go through an evolutionary change in a generation. Indeed now I see both under- and post-graduate enrollment in universities at rates we’ve never had before, sales of books at record levels, mass audiences for poetry readings, more and more writing creative as well as functional, and serious philosophical engagement in unexpected places.

But pay attention all curmudgeons — the world is of course going to hell in a hand-basket.

paula_hawkins_signs_for_indies_020415Shelf Awareness 5 February 2015 reports: “Visiting from London, Paula Hawkins stopped by the Penguin offices in New York City on Tuesday and signed 800 copies of her bestselling The Girl on a Train (Riverhead), all of which are available to independent booksellers (just ask your Penguin Random House rep). This is her way of thanking indies for showing their support for the novel from early on — via recommendations, Indie Next nominations, store displays, handselling — and helping to make it so popular.”

What’s the earliest recorded book signing? Juergen Beyer suggests in a SHARP email “For some time I have been working on an article dealing with another, and much earlier, instance of an author signing his printed book by hand, hoping this way to avoid unauthorised reprints. The Lutheran pastor Gottfried Kiliani did so in a German sermon collection of 1668. At the end of the preface he explains that no one should buy the book without his signature both at the end of the preface and on the copper plate in front of the book. So far I have been able to trace five copies which look exactly the way the author wanted to, while the Google Books copy (from Princeton) lacks the signatures and is set differently.”

Doctor Beyer may have found only 5 copies of Postilla Sacramentalis. For modern authors 800 seems to be a day’s signing.

Clive Cussler getting ready to sign 800 copies of “The Assassin”










Now comes news, via Shelf Awareness of Gabrielle Zevin’s signing of 2,000 copies of Young Jane Young. Here she is pictured with half of them at the Algonquin warehouse. Should someone get signing the Guinness Book of World Records?

Can it really be true that a Japanese bookshop/hotel allows you to sleep among the stacks? Publishing Perspectives tells us the unlikely story. I wonder how much reading in bed you are allowed to do? Guests falling asleep over an expensive volume and crushing it when they turn over during the night makes for significant stock-shrinkage risk.

Books are well established as sleep aids of course. We know of many a book which is all too effective in this regard, no matter what time of the day one engages with it. The BBC radio program, “A book at bedtime”, began in 1949 with a 15-part reading of The Three Hostages by John Buchan. The program was a steady presence in my childhood, though I don’t recall listening in any regular way. I do think this is a good use of the airwaves, especially now that audio books are gaining in popularity and respectability. Being read to is a great way to fall asleep (educators claim it as the foundation of children’s literacy, though I think they focus on the reading rather than the falling asleep). Reading in bed is also better for your mind than a sleeping pill: it often seems to take effect all too soon. Reading a print book is allegedly better for this purpose than e-book reading, though this bright screen effect is not something that seems to stop me dozing off.

If you don’t have the energy to do it yourself, and you can’t find anyone to read you to sleep here are several options reviewed by The Guardian. Of course the advantage of having a parent or other live person read to you is that they can stop when you doze off. The machine will just go on reading, leaving you to figure out where you’d got to — something which is often hard enough if you lose your bookmark while wide awake.

The Global Read Aloud program is introduced at Book List Reader. This year’s event kicked off on 2 October and ends on 10 November. The idea of Global Read Aloud is that groups of children around the world have the same book(s) read aloud to them, by librarians or teachers, and share follow-up projects and reactions with others elsewhere. The idea that kids may take to the book because of the on-line interaction is probably a good one. The organization claims that over 2 million kids have participated since the program’s inception in 2010. Of course the trick is to get the parents to stop regarding book reading as a school activity and figure out that this is a good idea which they themselves might take it up at bedtime.

Copperplate script by John Ayres, 1683; Columbia University Libraries. From Encyclopedia Britannica.

We’ve all seen it. Copperplate flexes its stiff old joints and takes a run around the track whenever there’s a wedding invitation to be done.

But why would the handwriting style also called English Roundhand get that name?

Once upon a time all illustrations for printing were cut in wood. By the seventeenth century printers had figured that engraved copper plates (though more expensive) would be more durable and better able to hold the finest detail. Pages printed from these copperplate engravings got the name “plates” and were printed separately from the rest of the book. An engraving could have a raised impression like type but would more usually be an intaglio image with the area to print black recessed into the plate — this would obviously make printing on a different press a necessity. You can see a video of a copper plate being engraved at the earlier post Die sinker.

Because for hundreds of years all the handwriting manuals teaching schoolchildren English Roundhand were printed from copperplates, that term took over as the name of the script in colloquial usage. And when I say these manuals were widespread and long-lasting you have to understand that I learned handwriting from one of them (probably by then printed by offset lithography, but quite possibly not) which I was given at the age of four upon arrival at Primary School in Gullane. A line of letters was followed by a wide space below, with little leader lines onto which we were meant to copy the model above. We were not required to make all the curlicues as shown in the picture above, which had evolved as markers of scribal skill, though we were taught a fairly elaborate script.

These books would be reprinted over and over again, with nary a change needed. That was one of the benefits of the technology: unlike letterpress the type/images didn’t need to be recreated every time you needed to print more. It was quite common to re-engrave the lines on a copperplate before reusing it for a second printing. Fine lines might fill in after the press bashed the plate about for a number of impressions. This cleanup was routine and noncontroversial: nothing really was changed. The Folger Shakespeare Library blog, The Collation, shows us the example below from two versions of The Aeneid from 1654 and 1697 where part of the plate was re-engraved to change Aeneas’ face. Their conclusion is that this was done to make Aeneas look like the mustacheless King William III; it is thought that the printer, Jacob Tonson, did this in order to attract patriotic wealthy subscribers. It worked. The book turned out to be oversubscribed, and several refunds had to be made.

Research shows that apart from this edit, the plates were identical.


It’s becoming common to sigh and moan about people’s only reading news which coincides with their political prejudices. You sign up to follow feeds that are likely to send you stuff you’ll like, and lo and behold you end up getting only the stuff that you like. Purists worry that we’re going to entrench our prejudices by failing to take account of what the other guy’s saying.

But how “new” is this? No too much, I think. Don’t know about you, but I don’t roam the streets looking to buttonhole likely conservatives in order to gain a fuller appreciation of their point of view. Surely we all prefer talking to people with whom we basically agree. Wasn’t it ever thus? I grew up in a household where we took The Scotsman and the Dziennik Polski (Polish Daily). The Scotman‘s a Unionist stalwart (i.e.Conservative if you’re from Scotland) and while I couldn’t ever read Polish, I can’t imagine Dziennik Polski wasn’t energetically anti-communist. The point is that people have always chosen to hear one side of the question only, perhaps in order better to feel free to reduce their opponents to sub-human status. And living through such a regime doesn’t preclude your coming out the other end with a completely different world view. Just because your recommendation engine sends you stuff about obesity doesn’t mean that you despise baked goods.

Personally I tend to pay scant heed to the emails Amazon bombards me with suggesting that as I just bought a pair of jeans from them maybe I’d want to buy this other pair of jeans. How many jeans does a person need? The emails don’t annoy me as much as they do others though — it seems to me fair enough that a retailer should try to encourage you to buy another something, another anything. Why don’t independent bookstores do this too? Surely it can’t hurt to have your local bookseller making an email recommendation, just as we all claim to value this in the store itself. I insist I’ve never paid any attention to those notes at the bottom of your Amazon search which tell you that people who bought the item you’re considering also bought these others. (Why shouldn’t a flesh and blood bookseller do the same?) The nearest I’d come to paying attention to Amazon’s hints would be if they were offering me volumes 1 and 2 at a bundle discounted price. Anyway, I tend to find that when I’ve finished reading about 200-year old young ladies in bonnets and ribbons angling for a good match I’m ready for a monograph on language acquisition. However I am obviously not in the majority in my contrariety.

The Economist (30 September, 2017) presents an analysis of “Customers who bought X also bought Y” data, which seem to show that we live pretty much in our own bunkers. They do see a few books linking both ways, but why should they expect Milo Yiannopoulos’s fans to read anything from the blue side of the divide? Let them noodle about in the red zone. Forcing an opposition book on them is probably more likely to increase polarization than to help reduce it.

I wonder whether this sort of analysis is being done for other pairs of opposites so that publishers can attempt to direct their authors to writing in more sought-after channels rather than just churning out what the muse dictates. Hope not: but I bet I’m wrong.

Is it depressing that a Google search for papyrus will return a page filled with links to the chain of stationery stores, Papyrus? Maybe not; after all what right do we have to assume that the internet isn’t all about business and retailing stuff?

Papyrus is of course the precursor of paper (and indeed the word’s origin).  Cyperus papyrus is an aquatic plant native to Africa. Its pith, cut into strips, would be woven into flat flexible sheets by ancient Egyptians (and others more recent) on which one could write. After the woven sheet had dried out under a weight it would be burnished with a stone to make it smoother. As you can see from this video, the stem has a triangular cross section which almost demands this sort of treatment.

Papyrus “books” were formed of several sheets of papyrus, joined together and rolled up to form a book roll. Writing on papyrus, which although its surface is pretty smooth (the lady in the video tells us its derivation is from the word for baby’s skin), demands different techniques than writing on paper — brush rather than pen. The Wikipedia article is comprehensive. Oddly, papyrus was called wadj, tjufy, or djet in the ancient Egyptian language. I guess this means the Greeks named the paper after the plant.

Papyrus is also a rather over-ornamental typeface designed in 1982 by Chris Costello. It’s the typeface, used, as Ryan Gosling’s character in this Saturday Night Live video is unable to get over, for the title sequence of the film Avatar.

(Link thanks to Lois Billig.)

A Hollander is a machine used to beat bits of fiber (here probably cotton rags) into a pulp, breaking the fibers down into small enough pieces to form a sheet of paper.

gif from Paperslurry

The name implies a Dutch origin, and indeed the machine was developed in the Netherlands in the late seventeenth century to replace the stamping mills which had previously performed this function, much more slowly.

Rotating metal blades within that black housing rotate like a mill wheel in the flow of slurry (just water and fiber) which circulates in the race, getting broken down more and more as time passes.

Here’s an unusually gigantic Hollander in operation at Papeterie Saint-Armand in Montreal.

Bear in mind that the materials used in paper making in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were primarily cotton and linen rags, so don’t think of a Hollander as chomping up bits of trees! The earliest recorded use of wood for paper making (apart from the action of wasps, which Réaumur hypothesized in 1719 might be adapted for our purposes) was in 1800 when Matthias Koops, an English papermaker, published a book part of which was printed on “paper made from wood alone”. It wasn’t till 1844 that Friedrich Gottlob Keller patented the first practical wood-grinding machine, thus enabling the development of the groundwood paper industry.

The highlighted words are from a song by Rick Astley.

Cunning work in 3rd period, though there are a couple of intentional typos to make it work. The teacher must be proud. Does this count as a poem? Probably.

Tweeted on World Teachers Day (5 October) by Book Week Scotland and Scottish Book Trust.

Adriaen van de Velde:
A Farm with a Dead Tree

We don’t hear this slur any more do we? In the early days of ebooks the enthusiasts promoting digital access used to use the term to try to persuade even more people of the wickedness of print publishers, initially newspaper and magazine publishers, but subsequently book publishers too. Defiantly the blog Dead Tree Edition, a blog focussed on the periodical business, celebrated its seventh anniversary a couple of years ago with a discussion of the term “dead tree edition” pointing out that things haven’t worked out as the skeptics expected.

Who knows where we are going, but where we are seems pretty unambiguous: ebook sales have settled around 20-25% of total book sales —yes, yes, you who are always so quick to object, I refer to book sales from traditional publishing. Sales figures for self-published books, which we assume are mainly ebook sales, are unsurprisingly rather hard to come by. We know they are large (or we think we know this) but what implication that’d have for the overall total of books sold is hard to know for sure. After all the value of sales of print books remains immense whatever the picture. Emphasising once again that these sales numbers are not really available by anything other than extrapolation, one suspects that they are not as large as the total sales of traditional publishers. I showed suggestions in a post last year that in 2015 self-publishing sales at $1.25 billion were in fact less than 5% of traditional publishing sales, in other words only about 20% of traditional publishing ebook sales. Now I am perfectly willing to be proved wrong on these detailed numbers — I suggest however that whatever the numbers the discussion is irrelevant. Who cares whether the source of people’s reading is Messrs Indie Publisher or Random House? That they read is the important bit. Certainly nowadays many people seem content to continue reading on paper. Maybe they won’t in the future. Maybe they will. It doesn’t matter — publishers (self or trad) will still be there to provide materials whatever the preferred format may be.

The dead tree slur of course refers to the need to chop down trees to make paper. US paper makers are energetic in their commitment to sustainability. You may dislike managed forests, but the industry aims to plant one tree for every tree cut down. Printing overseas may expose you to more ambiguous fiber sources, as I suggested a few years ago.