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The Book: an introduction

Everyone knows what a book is, right? Ha! A surefire argument starter in any roomful of book people is to ask for a definition of "Book", but there is usually a general understanding of the term and its meaning. Dr Johnson is supposed to have said that, though he could not define an elephant, he knew one very well when he saw it.

Webster's New School and Office Dictionary says a book is: "a collection of sheets of paper or other material, blank, written or printed, and bound together", which is fairly succinct. Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary adds that the word probably comes from the Anglo Saxon boc, plural bec, meaning a writing or record book, and possibly from the Norse bok meaning a book and a beech tree. Other languages have similar words. Whatever, when we use the term book today we usually mean the codex form of book. Codex, from the Latin meaning trunk of a tree, or something made from wood -- such as pugillares (see below), came to denote book in the modern sense of the word, the form usually associated with the Christian church, which was, in large part, responsible for its development and growth.

Precursors to the codex certainly include the inscribed clay tablets of Mesopotamia, and even rolled scrolls (still prescribed for use in Jewish synagogues), a well-known example being the Dead Sea scrolls. Papyrus, a very early writing material, had to be rolled as it would delaminate if folded.

The early Greco-Roman diptych consisted of two tablets, or pugillares hinged together. Each half consisted of wood, metal, or ivory shallow boxes filled with wax. Writing was scratched on the wax surface with a stylus and could easily be erased and written over. Other forms included triptychs, and even this octoptych, reconstructed from one found at Herculaneum.

The Chinese, who apparently invented paper in the second century AD, also invented printing shortly after. The earliest known printed book is an Oriental block-printed book of 868 AD, known as the Diamond Sutra, printed in Japan which was then under the control and influence of the Chinese. This book is in the form of a scroll; the Japanese developed a form of binding called Orihon, in which a lengthy sheet is accordion folded and then bound along one edge.

Other civilizations, in other times and locations have used many different materials, natural and man-made, bound together in some fashion or not, but always to preserve and transmit records, teachings, etc. Books which, "in all their variety offer the means whereby civilization may be carried triumphantly forward." (Winston Churchill)

The next section deals with the physical properties of the codex.

For those wishing to know more about early mss. and book production, refer to David Diringer's The Book Before Printing, listed in the bibliography. For on-line exhibitions of early and contemporary books see some of the sites listed on the links page.


The Book | Vellum & Parchment | Paper making | Calligraphy | Wood engraving | Typography | Letterpress printing | Paper decorating | Bookbinding | Artists' Books | Conservation | Bibliography
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