Can we think our way back to a time before the great digitization? Before the Cloud? Before Google Glass and cortical implants and neuro-adaptive braille, before human uploads and the Hive? Before reading on, go get a book and hold it in front of you… Now, leaf through it. Notice the typeface. The symmetry. The geography of the ink. But be careful: it is liable to tear, or fall apart altogether.
This was the main way information was recorded and transmitted. What an amazing technology. Invented before gunpowder or the stirrup, the book lasted longer than the steam engine and the rotary phone. Every part of it was adapted for human use over hundreds of years of trial and error. Notice the height and the width of the spine, perfectly suited to the palm. Do you see the width of these pages? They’re set in relation to our natural vision span, which relates in turn to the size of the macula in the human eye.
The materials that went into making a book could be selected to fulfill specific needs. They could be cheap and light or heavy and durable. A book made from vellum could easily last a thousand years — more if the conditions were right. A large parchment codex might consume the skins of a hundred or more cows. Paper books could be small enough to hold in your pocket or under your clothes. In the Middle Ages, some books were treasures kept between jeweled covers — the kind of thing it was worth jumping into a longship to steal. Many people kept books close to their hearts. Michael Marullus kept a copy of Lucretius under his armor when he rode into battle. Harry Widener went down on the Titanic with a copy of Francis Bacon’s Essaies.
Every part of the book has a history of its own. Paper was brought to the west after a battle between the Arabs and Chinese by Samarkand. The Japanese made a splendid paper out of rags. Before the printing press it could take months to make by hand. Printing introduced quantity and speed. Gutenberg made his ink in small batches out of lamb black and sulfur. Looking at his letters is like staring into a pool of tar. The oldest piece of print was found in a cave. It’s a speech by the Buddha, and it asks the reader to imagine all the grains of sand in the River Ganges, and then to imagine a world in which there were as many Ganges as grains of sand.