The Evolution of Books: From Cave Drawings to Kindles

By November 4, 2015 Culture, Literature

The Evolution of Books

Picking up a book is really one of life’s pleasures. The weight of it in your hand, the smell of the printed pages, it’s just all so very tactile isn’t it? I’m sure many of you agree with me and take joy in them with very little thought to the actual process that goes into making such a thing, or appreciate the evolution that changed rock carvings to the very thing you hold, or the rows of binary that almost miraculously make words appear on your digital device. So where did it all start? How did hammer and chisel come to be replaced by printing press or digital trickery?

So let us start at the beginning with our fine, prehistoric ancestors and their wonderful cave paintings. Although, obviously, not a book and the least portable thing you can think of, it does, however, have relevance. These are the first examples of man having the urge to record events, put it for all to see, to remember it. We really have got to give a polite nod in their direction.

But as I said, not a book, so let’s wander a bit further up the path and stop at around 3000 B.C. Now we are in the Babylonian era and we see men pressing characters into wet clay tablets with a stick or bone and leaving them in the sun to dry. But again these can’t strictly be considered books. They were most ceremonial and not to be viewed by everyone, just the higher members of the tribe. They were also fairly impractical and brittle so great care had to be taken with them. Not really something you would want to take on the bus, they would probably hinder your day out.

Onward we go from the clay tablets to the the next major type of book, the scroll or papyrus roll. The basic material would have been made by slitting the plant stems and cutting them into fibrous strips. These strips would then have been laid out side by side and further layered at right angles. These would have been soaked in the ‘magic waters’ of the Nile and then left to dry in the sun. When dry they would have been hammered into sheets and polished with ivory to make a smooth writing surface. To illustrate the prolific use of this type of binding it is estimated that the famous Library of Alexandria had over 700,000 volumes. That was a large library even by today’s standards especially when you consider that every roll had to be written by hand. The library was destroyed in 640 AD by the Arabs, who according to history, were able to keep 4,000 baths hot for 6 months by burning all the volumes. Yeah, that made me wince too. But again, they became quite brittle and could only be stored in rolls, so still fairly impractical.

Now we’ve taken a little detour to China to have a bit of nose around, and if we nose carefully enough we will see what can actually be recognised as an actual, real book. They are made from narrow strips of palm leaves or strips of bark. The writing was been scratched on the surface and then filled with lamp black to make the characters stand out. In order to keep the leaves flat it would then be common to place pieces of wood either side of the pile of the palm leaves. To hold the pieces of wood and palm leaves together holes would be bored through and a cord of leather woven through. Sometimes the cover would be decorated with an extremely complex design using gold and silver with elaborate carvings and intricate inlay work. However, it is unlikely that the book that we are used to today would have descended directly from this route, they would not have been widely seen or known about outside of the region.

Modern day bookbinding began with the change from the continuous roll, to the book made up from separate sheets. Early books were composed of single sheets of vellum, followed by paper, folded over and collected into sections of suitable size. The leaves were held together in the correct order by sewing through the centre fold onto flexible bands.To keep the leaves flat and undamaged, early books were placed between wooden boards. Later it was found convenient to join those boards and leaves together and leather was eventually wrapped round to form the type of book that today we are all familiar with.

As early as the 6th Century, Monks had taken the art of binding manuscripts to a very high standard. Unfortunately most of these books were destroyed for gems that were supposed to be hidden in their thick wooden boards. Between the 10th and 14th Century, English Monks. having copied and improved the design of books, became the foremost binders of Europe. However it took 2 major inventions to produce a book in large quantities: Paper and printing. Paper was also first invented by the Chinese around 200 years BC with the actual manufacture process kept a closely guarded secret. However in 750AD the Arabs captured some prisoners amongst whom were skilled Chinese paper makers and so the secret got out. It took some 800 years for the techniques to be adopted by the Moors in Spain, the first European paper makers, with the first paper mill in England being established near Stevenage about 1496.

It took a German printer in 1456 named Johann Gutenburg to come up with the idea of making each letter into a small block so that each line of text and page could be assembled from these little letters. These could the be broken down and reused time and time again. The first printer in England was William Caxton who in 1474 printed his first book, the ‘Game and Play of the Chess.’ If you have a first edition copy of this book then I think you should probably insure it. It’s priceless.

From here the journey is very straight forward. As the industrial revolution and Victorian ingenuity progressed then so did the mechanisation of book printing and binding right up to the modern age. Words are still pressed onto paper using ink and formed letters, or literally sprayed on. It’s far quicker and more efficient these days but the core process is still the same. As for your digital books on your device or Kindle, I have no idea, I’m a technological incompetent so it’s best to ask someone else about that.

So now you know.

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