October 14, 2020

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A cover-to-cover exploration of
the most powerful object of our time

by Keith Houston.
W. W. Norton. 2016
(i-xvii, 428 pages) [71 color illustrations]

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note = Numbers in parentheses refer to pages

Quote = "This book about books gives us the momentous and surprising history behind humanity's most important universal information technology!" from publisher's blurb.

PART 1 THE PAGE (1-76)

1) A CLEAN SHEET The invention of papyrus (3-17)

2) HIDEBOUND The grisly invention of parchment (18-34)

3) PULP FICTIONS The ambiguous origins of paper in China (35-49)

4) FROM SILK ROAD TO PAPER TRAIL Paper goes global (50-76)

PART 2 THE TEXT (77-152)

5) STROKE OF GENIUS The arrival of writing (79-101)

6) THE PRINTS AND THE PAUPER Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of movable type (102-127)

7) OUT OF SORTS Typesetting meets the Industrial Revolution (128-152)


8) SAINTS AND SCRIVENERS The rise of the illuminated manuscript (155-174)

9) EX ORIENTE LUX Woodcut comes to the West (175-201)

10) ETCHING A SKETCH Copperplate printing and the Renaissance (202-218)

11) BETTER IMAGING THROUGH CHEMISTRY Lithography, photography, and modern book printing (219-237)

PART 4 FORM (239-328)

12) BOOKS BEFORE THE BOOK Papyrus scrolls and wax tablets (241-260)

13) JOINING THE FOLDS The invention of the codex (261-282)

14) TIES THAT BIND Binding the paged book (283-309)

15) SIZE MATTERS The invention of the modern book (310-328)

COLOPHON Backmatter head (329-331)



NOTES (339-401)


INDEX (407-428)

note = "This is a book about books. Until recently, this would have been an unambiguous statement. Whether it was a flimsy paperback or a ponderous coffee-table tome, a book was a book and the word came without caveats. We bought books at bookshops and garage sales; we borrowed them temporarily from libraries and permanently from our friends (and sometimes the other way around); we held them reverently, gingerly, or forced them open until their spines cracked; we filed them neatly on bookshelves or piled them haphazardly at our bedsides. To borrow the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, 'we know a book when we see it'."

note = "After more than a thousand years as the world's most important form of written record, the book as we know it faces an unknown future. Just as paper superseded parchment, movable type put scribes out of a job, and the codex, or paged book, overtook the papyrus scroll, so computers and electronic books threaten the very existence of the physical book. [It is worth introducing 'codex' as a technical term: it means specifically a paged book as opposed to a papyrus scroll, clay tablet, or any of the myriad other forms the book has taken over the millennia. It is pronounced 'code-ex,' and its plural is 'codices.' I have used it where a distinction must be made between a paged book and any other form.]"

note = "E-books are cheap and convenient, weightless things downloaded at the tap of a touchscreen or the click of a mouse and effortlessly toted around in their hundreds on a phone or tablet. Barring an actual apocalypse, your e-books will be stored safely online forever, duplicated serenely across a host of servers in data centers around the world. It takes a strong will to resist the lure of the e-book."

note = "All that set aside, pluck a physical book off your bookshelf now. Find the biggest, grandest hardback you can. Hold it in your hands. Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue. Smell it! Flip through the pages and feel the breeze on your face. An e-book imprisoned behind the glass of a tablet or computer screen is an inert thing by comparison."

note = "This book is not about e-books. This book is about the corporeal ones that came before them, the unrepentantly analog contraptions of paper, ink, cardboard, and glue that we have lived with and depended on for so long. lt is about books that have mass and odor, that fall into your hands when you ease them out of a bookcase and that make a thump when you put them down. It is about the quiet apex predator that won out over clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, and wax writing boards to carry our history down to us."

note = "It is, admittedly, all too easy to take the existence of physical books for granted. The sheer weight of them that surrounds us at all times, in bookcases, libraries, and bookshops, leads to a kind of bibliographic snow blindness... This book is about the history and the making and the 'bookness' of all those books, the weighty, complicated, inviting artifacts that humanity has been writing, printing, and binding for more than 1500 years! It is about the book that you know when you see it."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR = Keith Houston is the author of the book, Shady Characters, and the founder of He lives in London.

SUMMARY = The book reveals how books and the materials that make them reflect the history of human civilization, tracing the development of writing, printing, illustrating, and binding to demonstrate the transition from cuneiform tablets and papyrus scrolls to the mass-distributed books of today.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = We may love books, but do we know what lies behind them? In The Book, Keith Houston reveals that the paper, ink, thread, glue, and board from which a book is made tell as rich a story as the words on its pages --- of civilizations, empires, human ingenuity, and madness. In an invitingly tactile history of this 2,000-year-old medium, He follows the development of writing, printing, the art of illustrations, and binding to show how we have moved from cuneiform tablets and papyrus scrolls to the hard cover books and paperbacks of today. Book lovers of all stripes will delight in this book that is full of lush color illustrations. The Book gives us the momentous and surprising history behind humanity's most important --- and universal --- information technology.

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LIBRARY JOURNAL REVIEW = From discussing papyrus to perfect binding, Houston (Shady Characters) takes readers on an exploration of the origins and evolution of the book. What could have been a dry and straightforward history is instead a fascinating story enriched with descriptions of technical innovation, the curious experiments of printers and entrepreneurs, and a close examination of how the language, art, and science of bookmaking has developed (and in some cases remained the same) over centuries. Along the way, the author illustrates the progress of particular printing techniques and design conventions and reveals that the tale of moveable type goes far beyond Johannes Gutenberg's inventions in the 15th century.

Houston delves into the bookmaking societies of ancient Egypt, China, and the Roman Empire, and shows how those styles of the craft have left a lasting impression on the culture of reading and writing today. Pulling together aspects of archaeology, history, literature, and biography, the author reveals the facts, conjecture, and educated guesses experts have made about how and when the first modern tome came to be, which is surprisingly difficult to pin down. VERDICT: This engaging volume should satisfy a wide cross-section of book lovers, history buffs, and those interested in the dynamic relationship among language, the written word, and human ingenuity. -- Rebecca Brody, Westfield State Univ., MA

PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY REVIEW = Houston (Shady Characters) reminds readers of the joy of reading print in this history of the book, lovingly crafted and embellished with arcane anecdotes. Chapters are arranged by the parts of a book: page, ink, pen, type, illustrations, and the binding that brings it all together. Houston begins with the creation of writing, moving to the search for something to write on. He explores papyrus, parchment, and paper in their many forms, along with the need to find inks that suit each one. Houston challenges popular misconceptions --- "If Gutenberg is to be credited with anything it must be that he made the printing press work" --- and offers anecdotes of particularly thrilling moments in the book's development, such as the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, where the earliest complete codices known were found.

Houston appreciates words, too. He derives the origin of the word syllabus, for instance, and explains the differences between illuminated and illustrated manuscripts. Technical discussions of the printing press, lithography, and binding are enlivened by stories of their creators' missteps. Houston's fixation with this object is a delight, and his understanding of how history is written and his clear delineation between speculation and established fact are very refreshing. Agent: Laurie Abkemeier, DeFiore & Company.

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