Chronicling the History of the Book as Object

Commentators, friend and foe, have made much of Barack Obama’s calculated appropriation of the legacy of Lincoln. What most struck me, as a book historian, was his decision to take the inaugural oath on the bible that Lincoln used in 1861.

In the Senate Chamber, Jill Biden struggled with a massive family bible (in Maureen Dowd’s catty phrase, “the size of a Buick”). The small “Lincoln” Bible, by contrast, was not Lincoln’s (still in his luggage) or even American (it was published in Oxford), but rather, one provided by the Clerk of the Supreme Court, though a particularly elegant copy: “bound in burgundy velvet with a gold-washed white metal rim,” “heavily gilded” edges, and a “shield of gold wash over white metal with the words ‘Holy Bible’.” Do not the Constitutionally mandated words suffice? Why swear on a physical object, usually, a sacred book with some symbolic or personal association?

At the dawn of the print era, the warlord and patron, Federigo da Montefeltre, Duke of Urbino, commissioned lavish manuscripts of the classics, “Beginning with the Bible . . . covered with gold brocade,” the others “bound in scarlet and silver”: “had there been one printed volume, it would have been ashamed in such company.” Karl Marx, by contrast, ruthlessly dog-eared pages, marked up margins, and underlined passages in his books, cheap and luxurious alike, explaining, ”they are my slaves and they must serve me as I will.”

Both perspectives are valid: On the one hand, because books are the vehicles of our collective memory and most cherished ideas, we continue to invest them with symbolic meaning. On the other, as a portable information retrieval device, the “codex” of leaves between covers is qualitatively no different from the clay tablet that preceded it or the electronic device that will succeed it. The essence—the text—remains the same. In this regard, a book differs from a painting, in which the creative achievement is inseparable from the physical form.

The fact that every book is an object means that its evolving physical attributes grant the historian entrée to a world of intellectual processes and social relationships. The jewel-like illumination of the seventh-century Book of Durrow reflects the supreme, quasi-magical importance that Irish monks attached to the Gospel—and their newfangled practice of separating words with spaces rather than running them together enabled the epochal shift from oral to silent reading. Typographical variants in Renaissance books provide insights into authorial habits as well as the labor practices of anonymous artisans. Early modern readers judged a book not by its cover (it was generally sold unbound), but nonetheless by its physical qualities as much as content. Then, materials were expensive and labor was cheap; today, the reverse is true. Every material aspect of the printed book—format, paper, layout, typeface, quality of printing—is a clue to marketing strategy, authorial image, audience, and use. The duodecimo luxury almanac in the Enlightenment lady’s pocket, the crude octavo periodical in the hand of the revolutionary sans-culotte, and the massive folio volume on the scholar’s shelf signaled distinct social, physical, and intellectual situations. And, even if the texts are identical, the Victorian experience of reading the Pickwick Papers in original monthly installments and the modern one of reading a one-volume edition are not.

MacArthur Prize winner Terry Belanger, whose Rare Book School teaches the history and appreciation of print artifacts, famously predicted that books would become like horses: kept for pleasure more than practical use.

When faculty from Hampshire College founded the Center for the Book in order to foster the interdisciplinary study of the technologized word, from cuneiform to computer, our first event, in 1999, was a symposium celebrating the rich tradition of book arts in the Valley: the creative exploration of the physicality of the book in all its forms, classical to ultramodern.

Around that time, the fate of the book was occasioning much speculation, utopian and apocalyptic alike, due to the rapid rise of the new media and the approach of the millennium. In its December 31, 1999, issue, Time named Gutenberg the “Man of the Millennium.” In its January 1, 2000, issue (evidently everyone wanted to begin the millennium a year early), Newsweek offered a series of predictions on the imminent demise of the book, e.g.: by 2005, e-books and periodical downloads would be a billion-dollar business; by 2009, top-selling authors would publish electronically direct to their readers. In 2003, e-book sales amounted to only $ 10 million out of a market of $ 24 billion.

Make no mistake, books as we know them will eventually be put out to pasture (you don’t recall seeing any on “Star Trek,” do you?), but only when their time has come: that is, when something truly more convenient and cost-effective come along. In the meantime, relax: the paper and electronic book will exist side-by-side, just like manuscript and print.

Author: Jim Wald

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