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The strange non-death of the book

I have been doing more chucking out of old paper today, mostly of old newspaper and magazine articles that were vaguely interesting, but not interesting enough to be worth the bother of keeping them for another decade and a half. My life having worked well enough without me having read any of them during the previous decade and a half, out they went. Demand for black plastic bags in the Pimlico area has definitely surged lately. I am that surge.

The irony is, however, that much of the space thus liberated is going to be used to store … books. Remember them? Piles of paper in little heaps, glued or sewn together at one side. I find that the difference between an actual heep of articles just piled up, in an almost random order, and articles joined at the hip, so to speak, and then – and this is absolutely crucial – labelled at the edge, and on the outside, is: all the difference. Books do not merely contain lots of printed verbiage. Crucially, they also include their own automatic filing system built into them. Books still matter. Why, we even review them here, from time to time. Come to think of it, my last posting but one here was about a book. And nobody thought that odd for a blog to be publishing. (My next posting here could well be about another book.)

The mere disembodied article, like all those Libertarian Alliance articles that I chucked out a week or two ago, has now almost entirely migrated to the Internet. It may have a brief paper infancy, but then it enters the world of virtuality, only to return to print if a computer owner decides to print it out. But this print out soon dies. But books refuse to hide among the electrons. They remain, stubbornly, on their shelves, this being one of the most famous Internet businesses on the planet.

What this leads me to want to learn more about is not just the history of the printing press as such, but about the history of book binding. Who worked that out? And who invented the idea of books having a spine at the side, and having a title on the outside? When were hard cardboard covers decided upon, so that books could be stored vertically, in shelves. I did some googling a day or two ago, and got to this generic piece about what a wonderful advance books would be if they had only recently been thought of. But I could find nothing about the details of who sorted out binding, spines, outside titles, etc., and where, and when. My googlincompetence, no doubt.

The person I would normally ask about such things is my friend Sean Gabb, who writes this. But he is away just now. So instead I ask the Samizdata commentariat, a group of people who are, I believe, at their best when asked exact, technical questions about matters of fact, preferably technical or better yet technological fact.

And when we have sorted all that out, we can discuss whether the compact disc has any future. (I have been making new CD shelves also.) If the CD does have a future, it is, I think, because the CD is rather book-like. It has a spine, pointing outwards, and stores easily, vertically, and can be found with relative ease, especially when you consider that, unlike books, CDs are all the same size and thus do not cry out to be sorted into clumps that are merely the same size (as happens with books – mine anyway) but can instead be ordered rationally and hence retrievably. No, I am not really serious about that. But if the CD (and its proposed higher-tech successors) does stagger on for a few more years before it is engulfed by all our hard discs, it will be because it is like a book. And that is an entertaining irony, I think.

18 comments to The strange non-death of the book

  • Funny; in my world, when I get ahold of a new CD, I take it out of the CD box together with the booklet (yeah, I listen to the kind of music that promotes anecdotes and articles) and store it in a … CD book. I label the edge of the book the general content, have an index on the first page, and sort all the CD’s in a matter of personal taste (usually by country and period, but sometimes by genre).

    Books appeal to us humans, and I don’t think it is only because of thousands of years of tradition; the size is just right, it usually balances perfectly between the hands, you can take it anywhere, it doesn’t run out of battery, it is big (the flat sides) but yet small (edgewise), and it smells so good and honest! I guess I am attracted to its craftmanship, the layers of quality control and the excitement of turning to a page I’ve never seen before.

    But as to the history … *cough*

  • Diplodocus

    A book is a compact, portable random-access information retrieval system which needs no power supply. And it can prop up a wonky table leg without being damaged. I think it’ll catch on.

  • I have similar feelings about books. They’ll be hard to replace. I just checked out a 1964 edition of a 1957 book and it has very few marks in it. I could hardly keep from smiling while smelling and reading it. The book itself has a history.

    As for CDs, I have hundreds of them and new ones get ripped to my hard drive and the disc goes in a box, where it stays. They aren’t on par with books because they require another device to use them. Not so with a book.

  • A couple of years ago in DC I was at an event where Grover Norquist, a ‘ conservative policy entrepreneur’ who is best known I suppose for the concept of the ‘leave us alone coalition’ gave a talk on immigration (pro) and he waved a bunch of papers around and urged people to pick up copies in the back of the room afterwards.

    He said “Whoever comes to one of these events with the most handouts, wins. And anyway, we should all remember “A tree killed Sonny Bono!”

  • J

    I don’t think any physical format will replace CD. Minidisk might have done (and did in Japan), but increasingly music will be delivered in some digital format (e.g. mp3) and what physical medium it rests on will be inconsequential.

    I don’t think music shops will die out quickly though – they provide a better browsing experience than any website. CDs are extremely cheap to manufacturer, and they make as good a delivery format as any, but most people will transfer the data from them to other places, such as hard drives, memory cards, etc.

  • J

    As for books, my googling has brought me here:


    Which seems like a pretty good answer on the binding question (in short – became common in middle east and china in first few centuries AD), although not on the labelling and decorating question.

    I imagine books were decorated from the get go – anything that valuable would be decorated. The decorations may well have been related to the content, and so in some sense books were probably always identifyable by their covers. Explicit labelling of book with language probably didn’t begin until people were likely to have enough books that they needed an easier way to tell them apart. To begin with, I think people would have put labelled loose covers over the books. Probably, the earliest titled or labelled books would have been ledgers and records rather than books replicated for distribution.

  • Rudolph

    So do you think E-ink will ever catch on? If it does, you’ll only ever need one very small shelf for your book.

  • Andrew Duffin

    “we can discuss whether the compact disc has any future”

    Well if it does you had better make sure you buy good ones; none of them seems to last more than about ten years before the information becomes unreadable.

    Stick to books I say. And vinyl for your music

  • While I don’t know how books came to be in their present format, I do know a little bit about bookshelves…

    As any book owner can tell you, current styles of bookshelves do not seem to actually be geared toward books. They’re too deep, for one; it’s rare that you don’t either have a lot of space in front of or behind the books. The shelves also seem to be too short for the depth. (In case you’re wondering, the proper depth for fiction books is no more than nine inches. Twelve is industry standard, sometimes going up to eighteen – fine for photography or art books, but very few people have more than a few of those.)

    So they seem more suited to display than to books.

    But they weren’t always. We’re spoiled by modern printing techniques. Books from, say, two hundred years ago were hand stitched and not strong enough to stand on their spines; they were laid flat on the shelf. The height question is resolved. If you add in the fact that our modern mass-market paperback size is entirely a product of the twentieth century, and that books could easily be legal size or larger, the depth question is resolved as well.

    But those who manufacture shelves haven’t bothered to rethink their product; after all, people *know* what a bookshelf looks like, and for the most part, don’t question its usefulness. Because most people don’t own enough books to make it an issue.

    As you can guess, I do.

    (Oh, and check out the shelves at some bookstores, notably Borders. They’re sized to the books, and they have a slight tilt – about six or seven degrees. I want some.)

  • Tatyana

    Brian, link for history of books (Link), or any number of them if you google “bookbinding”. Or if you prefer to read books on bookbinding in traditional book format, here’s a bibliography:(Link)

    B.Durbin: as to the shelves dimensions: as with any manufactured goods, standardization misses out on specifics. Usually bookshelves are manufactured to fit most published products, so they are standard 12″ deep. Heights of the books differ, so cabinetmakers habitually provide adjustable cleat shelf support.
    Of course, if you want to have snugly fit shelves, you go custom, just like with taylor-made pants vs. “Gap”

    Most of the stores, chain or not, have their displays made custom by millworker per architect/interior designer specifications.

  • Dalmaster

    Reading from a traditional laptop doesn’t allow the same kind of comfort as reading a book, even when small and light, they’re often noisy and more difficult to read. Even take out all the things you don’t need, make it book-sized, you have the problem of the screen.

    Several organisations have developed their own paper-like displays to solve this problem. They are pleasant to look at, require only a small amount of power (it takes power to change the picture, but it stays, rather than requiring frequent refreshing like a traditional tube, tft or lcd). Only drawback is that they’re currently only black and white, and only availible in Japan.

    You can take a peek of one of the Sony “LIBRIé”s here. Looks quite Star Trek.

  • Guy Herbert

    As Tatyana suggests, Brian, there’s more abstruse material on bibliography (in the specific meaning of the term) and book history out there than anyone who’s not been a librarian or antiquarian bookseller or book collector can readily imagine. Here’s a good site.

    My answer to “who invented the modern book” would be: whoever invented the codex (which no one knows). Until about the 1st century BCE most books were in the form of long rolls. (Which was kept up for certain applications for a long time, e.g. Exchequer records into the 15th century. Trust the Government to adapt rapidly to change.) The innovation in late classical times was keeping a stack of flat sheets of paper or parchment together in a neat sequential parcel–a codex. When codices were kept together by sewing one edge, a thousand years before printing came to the West, we had the essence of the modern book .

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Brian, there is another factor: aesthetics. Books often look nice. I always feel that a drawing room or bedroom is improved by having some books around. The colours and designs of book covers have become an art form in their own right (science fiction art covers can be superb) so I think this will remain a facor. Also I actually quite like the smell of books. (Weirdo!)

    Also books are very, very convenient. I can read a paper back book on the train or while I am having lunch near the office. It simply is not so easy to replicate this on a computer.

    Books are here to stay.

  • Rudolph

    I like the smell of books too. I also used to like the smell of a new (vinyl) LP as it was removed from the cover for the first time. (Two weirdos.)

  • J.L.

    Check out Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf. It’s a technological history of libraries and book storage, and there are several pertinent discussions of bookbinding along the way.

  • jk

    I agree that the book will stay as a format and delivery mechanism — for all the reasons mentioned.

    The CD may not last as a medium, but it does last as a continuation of “the album:” a human-scale, body of musical work that a consumer can enjoy in one sitting, and that a producer can craft in part of a year.

    Moving to mp3s, I enjoy bring my entire collection on a plane, and I enjoy instantaneous access to any song, but I still like to listen to one CD. Just 10,000 of your favorite songs at random misses a need.

  • From time to time when I am reading a physical book I find that I would like to be able to search through it and instantly find words or phrases the way I can with an electronic document. Give me some electronic device that is as easy to read from and carry with me as a book, and which has this feature as well, and I would abandon books for it.

  • Rudolph

    If E-ink ever catches on, you will be able to do precisely that.