Books: A Living History

From the cuneiform tablet to the Kindle, it has always just been about the words, not the delivery platform, right? Not so, says Martyn Lyons in his affectionate history of that borderline obsolete, wood pulp-based format that readers have relied on for centuries.

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When paging through a splendid, friendly volume like the new Getty publication Books: A Living History by Martyn Lyons, it's natural to wonder if his work is an expression of enthusiasm or elegy.

All of human history has been shaped by books in their various forms, and for ages, the human life of the mind has been unthinkable without them. Yet, the printed book is under pressures it's never felt before, and for the first time in its 500-year history, it is beginning to look endangered.

They've survived despite many and obvious design flaws. The earliest books were cuneiform tablets created by the ancient Sumerians, probably to store the records of temple accounts and financial transactions, they were scarcely portable and not amendable, and their private ownership could only be very limited. In ancient Egypt, Lyons speculates, probably only one per cent of the population could read. Durability was sacrificed for lighter weight and greater manipulability when papyrus and vellum replaced stone, but fire `and damp became dangers, and ownership was still dear. Roman scholars like Cicero and Statius could amass collections of books in the form of scrolls ("ancient Rome was saturated with writing," Lyons tells us), which were easy to store and duplicate but cumbersome to read (try it sometime - you'll marvel that any ancient had the wherewithal - to say nothing of the wrist-strength - to become well-read). With the advent of the codex in the second century AD, the book as modern western audiences recognise it came into being: a stack of facing pages bound at the left-hand margin. These too began as precious (and often physically ponderous) objects, made at great cost for relatively few users, but at last a form had been created that could be produced, transported and annotated with comparative ease. "The scroll had to be held in both hands," Lyons points out, "whereas the codex liberated the reader to use his or her spare hand to take notes or to hold a drink."

From those earliest bound books, Lyons, one of the foremost working historians of book history and a very genial guide, takes readers on a tour of the incredibly colourful and varied history of his chosen subject (the colour part is infinitely aided by the hundreds of shrewdly chosen illustrations throughout). There are short inserts on entertaining niche topics such as "The Life of a Scribe," "The Book of Kells", or the 17th century "Dutch miracle" - referring to the brief window during which Holland became a "publishing powerhouse". There are mini-dissertations on sacred Buddhist texts, The Tale of Genji, the ever-expanding complexity of atlases, the Inquisition, and the fascinating print histories of such works as Don Quixote and such authors as Sir Walter Scott. As his narrative moves forward, Lyons reaches the Enlightenment and the advent of a predatory and revelatory new animal on the book scene: "Until the early 19th century, the jobs of publishing, printing and bookselling had not been distinguished and many individuals combined all three functions. Now the publisher had arrived ...

"Successful publishers were self-made entrepreneurs with creative skills, independence and an appetite for risk-taking," Lyons recounts, pointing to the mid-19th century rise of such influential figures as the Levy brothers in France and the publishing houses of Macmillan, Murray, and Longmans in Great Britain, as well as Karl Baedeker's famous travel guides in Germany. The adoption of business models and the proliferation of printing technology led to the spread of bookstores and the rise of circulating and lending libraries - often looked upon as a mixed blessing at best: "Despite the elegance of the buildings, local residents did not always relish the prospect of a public library in their neighbourhood, as it brought working-class and black customers into sedate middle-class districts."

Always, Lyons' story moves closer to those very same working-class readers. A general per capita rise in discretionary spending income on the part of so many populaces in the East and West in the wake of the Renaissance helped suddenly cheap, mass-produced printed books find their way to a far greater audience. In modern times, as Lyons notes, publishers such as Hachette, Verlag, and Penguin made a speciality out of affordable paperbacks designed to reach a wider audience than books had ever known. "The financial success of the paperback revolution," Lyons writes, "lay not in the inexpensive cover and binding but in the huge economies of scale that could be achieved from long print runs."

In the final third of the book, such modern-era phenomena as the British publishing firm of Mills & Boon are given the prominence that, for good or ill, they deserve. "Hundreds of unknown authors produced Mills & Boon fiction," we're told, "and very few of them are remembered: they wrote to a formula and the publisher's name defined the collection." Likewise the incredible explosion of Japanese manga titles in recent years (30 per cent of the total output of Japanese publishers, with the most popular titles selling millions of copies weekly), the readers of which are famously insatiable, giving rise in the 1980s to all-night "manga cafes" where patrons could consume the latest chapters until the sun came up.

Pamphlets, comics, chapbooks, atlases, encyclopaedia - the device welcomed all content. This form was so stable that the invention of the printing press and line-printing only strengthened it. But as Lyons' history moves into our own present day, a shadow begins to stretch over it.

Like a time-lapse version of real-life events, he's no sooner chronicled the rise of the mega-bookselling chains such as Chapters, Barnes & Noble, and Borders - chains that dozens or even hundreds of gigantic, overstuffed retail bookstores, often in locations that had never had one before - than he's talking about the rise of the "virtual" book. On one page is the doomed, anachronistic "Espresso" machine, which can instantly create a printed book at the instruction of a library or bookstore customer - and on the very next page is a photo of the late Steve Jobs introducing the iPad in January 2010. Lyons somewhat resignedly calls the digital universe a "fact of life", writing, "In the space of a few years, books have been cut free from their paper moorings. The electronic age has changed them more fundamentally than the invention of the codex or the advent of printing."

The aspect of the print ascendancy that book aficionados (and who isn't a book aficionado?) have been understandably reluctant to acknowledge is the extent to which the triumph of the printed book was facilitated by the absence of any viable competing technology, rather than by any inherent superiority of printed books themselves. Commentators have been prone to hyperbole; in the somewhat partisan pages of The New York Times Book Review, the book has been called a "perfect" device.

And they do indeed have their superiorities. As Lyon recounts, "Embattled book lovers often insist that books do not need batteries, they do not get infected by viruses and when you close a book you never need to 'save' because you will never lose your data." Add to this the fact that books don't support upgrades (you can pick up a book Boccaccio read and read it just fine) and can be more economically hurled across a room in disgust, and you have a formidable device.

But the revolution embodied in devices such as the iPad, the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Amazon Kindle, and a host of other reading "tablets" on the market (with dozens and hundreds more to follow in upcoming years) starkly underscores some of the weaknesses that have always been present in traditional technology. A printed book is a static thing - its contents may end up being life-changing, but the thing itself changes not at all. Lyons' embattled book-lover is mistaken in thinking he cannot lose his data - if he makes marginalia in a printed book and then loses that one-pound physical object constructed of dyed vegetable matter, he's lost that personalised data in a way that's almost unthinkable in the electronic realm. Electronic books can be infinitely annotated, instantly shared, incredibly underpinned with support and elaboration. A reader coming across a reference to the Treaty of Ghent in a printed book has no options: he must make a note (on more vegetable matter) and remember to consult another printed book for more details. That same reference in an electronic book will likely come with an embedded link to more information - and more links, expanding outward into a proliferation that makes the ancient Library of Alexandria look piddling.

Such superiorities are almost moot points in any case. Whenever advancing technology is matched with disposable income, the arc moves inevitably toward greater personal utility. Wall-sized industrial air conditioners gave rise to portable window units. The telephone at the corner shop gave way to the wall-unit in the kitchen, which gave way to a phone the size of a playing-card in the pocket of every person in the industrialised world. Record stores selling vinyl albums eventually gave way to digital downloads. In every one of those mega-bookstore chains, traffic and sales are down appreciably from even five years ago, and the handwriting is on the wall. The generation of readers coming of age in the 21st century will have as little use for mass-printed physical books as the present generation has for whalebone corsets. Although Lyons is cheerful about the survival of reading itself, his celebration of the printed word is also something of a eulogy.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.