Book Review of a Book on Books

Just a random horse (?) doodle in a BOOK.

Since punctuation goes together with both technologies of writing and the practice of it, I thought I need to brush up on the history of the book. Which signs we have invented when, and why, is intimately connected to the material we write on, how the text goes from mind to hand to page, how it is being read, in what form, by whom, when, to what purpose. How text is being stored.

I’ve got a long list of books on books to get through, but started with one for the general audience, The Book, by Keith Houston (who also wrote a book on punctuation, also for the public). I wasn’t exactly blown away by his punctuation book for reasons I’m still trying to figure out. I think I’m put off by the style which is both dense, as in full of information, and loose, as in the information he is giving is not information I think I need. Like, I don’t need to know about the minute changes of shape of all 30 Tironian ampersands found in this one manuscript in 1357. I’m all for detail, but the right kind of detail. There’s an Islamic saying: ‘oh God, protect me from useless information.

So, I was a bit wary of The Book, and it didn’t disappoint in having me disappointed even before it started. If that makes sense.

There are four sections: the page, the text, illustrations, and form. ‘The page’ explores the history of the material of the page, that is, papyrus, parchment, and paper. ‘The text’ is about writing kinds in the first place (such as cuneiform, hieroglyphs, Greek), and technologies of printing from Gutenberg to current machine printing. ‘Illustrations’ is about that, woodcuts and engravings, and ‘the form’ (the most interesting section, I think) traces the development of medium, as it were, from scroll to codex. Oh, and binding.

Here’s what I learnt: the earliest evidence of writing comes from the Sumerians, that’s cuneiform, more than 5000 years ago (I think). Writing came from Iraq to Egypt where someone invented hieroglyphs. The question of course is what one understands of writing. If one draws pictures, or icons, to express the name of a thing, e.g. a dog to say the word dog, is that writing? If so, what kind of writing, and how does it differ from writing where the image of a dog represents a sound, such as /d/? And how does that again differ from a system of writing that does not have any pictures at all, but glyphs which only represent sound that has been assigned to them, glyphs or letters which are symbolic. The alphabet for example.

Well, not quite the same, but…we are back to images and scrolls.

Hieroglyphs are something in between, both expressing the thing they are showing and a sound. Ancient Egyptians would write on scrolls from papyrus whose recipe was fiercely guarded, so that Greece and Rome had to import papyrus from Egypt. Around 200 A.D. parchment started to replace papyrus across the Mediterranean. It was more resilient than papyrus and one could write on both its sides (papyrus had fibrous ridges on the back making that impossible). Parchment also withstood changes of temperature and humidity better. That said, of course, it was more expensive than papyrus, and took longer to make.

Paper from linen rags entered the European market from China via Arab colonies in Spain; the first paper-making mill was opened in Andalusia in around 1150. While everything changed (the production, the looks inside a book, who read and wrote), one thing remained stable over hundreds of years, and that was the price for paper: linen seemed to always stay in short supply, so much so that even in nineteenth-century London, there was a ban on burying the dead in linen in order to save it for paper making. Only in 1850s Germany did paper from wood pulp become a thing, and would sweep away the old way of production. Paper had been made from mulberry bark in China since the fourteenth century, so it wasn’t exactly a new invention, but that’s the moment where wood pulp replaces linen on a big scale.

So much for the story of paper. The text section focussed on Gutenberg’s printing press with movable type – which is, once more, not the first time this has been invented! Chinese ingenuity, again, found, in the fourteenth century, that it was possible to print through carving each character on a wooden block which would then be put together as sentence in something like the compositor’s stick of the Renaissance. But because of the nature of Chinese writing (part symbolic, part image entity), and because of the sheer number of Chinese characters, it took as long to carve and put together the different characters as carve the entire page as one.

It’s somewhat frustrating to work one’s way through the book. Houston has plenty of detailed information, for example the name of a book seller 1300 years ago connected to some conspiracy which then turns out to be inaccurate. Perhaps it is a case of me expecting something else, but I just wasn’t interested in (apocryphal) anecdotes and exact place names and things. Perhaps it’s because Houston is more of a historian who shows and tells, and my training is as literary critic who analyses, and asks, well, but why is it this and that way. I had a sense of constant frustration, because I wanted to know more, wanted to see what Houston was thinking about the issues he wrote about. The entire book on the book feels like an assembly of stuff thrown in together. But not like a book book. A grand vision whole asking questions and thinking. Information, not knowledge, or cognition, rather.The part that interested me most came last: form.

Why was the scroll the first technology of capturing and circulating text? At least of which we have evidence, and excluding carvings on stone or clay.

The why is unknown. There’s just, well, information, Houston says. That scrolls were usually around 25cm in height, and around 2m long. That both hieroglyphs, semitic, and Greek writing would be in columns, the former two from right to left, the latter from left to right. That works on scrolls would be cut into “tomes” (from the Greek tomos for “cut”) gathered into a “volume” (“rolling out”), kept in pidgeon holes, for example in the Alexandrian library which had around 40.000 volumes. Not to forget the essential part of scroll, the syttibos, or title, written on a triangular piece attached to the outside of the scroll. That’s were the word ‘syllabus’ comes from, which was probably the most interesting bit I learnt from the book, and which is perfect data for a quiz show one of these days.

Torah scrolls, read from right to left.

But why. Why scrolls. Does it have something to do with how we think? Or write? Or something more technical, haptic, something about the quill and the ink?

Houston acknowledges that we just don’t know – but that cannot enough. We don’t know about so many things, but surely we have to keep asking, keep searching.

After all, scrolls are foldable. They might fray, or become brittle, but it’s not impossible. So why the potentially endless scroll form then?

If someone has secondary reading advice, please share! Extensive keyword Googling has still not thrown out proper starting points (àscrolls cognition codex thinking).

As always, though, people keep using several forms at the same time. And so, scrolls kept being used even as the book, as in the codex, started to emerge. The earliest recognizable codex dates from 400 B.C., and came as a diptych, that is, two rectangular wooden wings kept together at one side through a spine-like piece of wood or so; those tablets would be covered in bees’ wax on which the writer would scratch the text with a stylus, which made for easy erasure and re-writing (a characteristic affording writers to keep with the flow of their thoughts (according to Quintilian!). I like the ephemerality of writing through that technology, and how haptic and hands-on get-dirty it is. Beeswax scratching, more so than quill on parchment, really brings home the fact that, with writing, you do something to the world. You leave something out there. You literally leave your mark, in a very visceral way. You scratch yourself onto the world.

The direction would be horizontal rather than vertical, at least in classical times.

It was a small step from the diptych to the codex as we know it, although the directionality changes. You’d flip open the diptych like you do a laptop. Turn that 90° and you have our book. The first relic of a codex is around 2000 years old, and has a single papyrus page, a recto verso, pages 10 and 11, with a consistent margin. There you go, you can make papyrus into books, hm.

The first book. Apocryphcal early Christian material

The earliest more substantial evidence are the Nag Hammadi codices, around 1700 years old. They’re from papyrus, around as big as a pocket book today, have wastepaper enforcements, a leather binding, a fastening – good things stay the same.

Now, the question is why.

Why the scroll?

Why the codex?

Why make those very significant changes in technology, in handling, in cognition? One would assume it makes a huge difference in how you think if you write on something that (potentially) goes on forever without visible pause or stopping, such as you have when you flip a page.

One would also assume that navigating text in a scroll happens differently from doing so in a book where you can easily flip to certain pages, and faster. No need to unroll the entire thing, just open it on the page that you want: easy through pagination (and later tables of content, and even later the alphabetical index). A book may propel more linear kinds of thought, but on the other hand, you can easily go back from the middle of the book to the first page, or right to the end without undoing the whole thing.

One would assume the feel of a book in the hand is different, perhaps more weighty, than a scroll. More like a tool, perhaps, something to help you organize thought and life. To be in control.

It seems to me there are momentous questions around the two different technologies of text. On the other hand, it’s likely that someone who grew up with handling scrolls is perfectly capable of pointing to rough places where an information lies. And there is technically no need to unroll the entire scroll in order to find any place. So perhaps the change if not that big of a deal? But why not stick with scrolls then? It seems there’s something to it, since we’re gone back to scrolls, so we can think through them.

I don’t know, but I think partly it has to do with keeping text safe and portable (a book seems to be more able to do that), and with retrieving information more easily and faster. Even that tiny bit faster. And this is where punctuation comes in.

As I have explored elsewhere, one explanation for the emergence of punctuation marks is increasing the speed of reading, which, in turn, increases the speed of everything else. Trade for instance. Communication of whatever kind.

I’ve written about this here.

On the other hand, perhaps there is a certain kind of depth that gets lost with the increase of speed of reading, writing, exchanging. Studies show that there is a degree of desirable difficulty, a harder-to-read font, for example, leads to better retention of the text’s content. I’ve written about this here. Poring over unpunctuated text and figuring out what it means could lead to more thorough understanding. Punctuation, the codex, even writing itself can be seen as agents of surface. If you write it down, you don’t need to really know it. You can always just look it up. The book helps you find the information quickly, punctuation helps you read it quickly. Perhaps.

If anybody has secondary research on the changes of text technology, let me know! Until then, I only have this to offer:

Splendid Isolation Book Two: Punctuation and Progress

As we continue social distancing from others and working at home in our pyjamas (welcome to the life of an academic), I’m continuing my punctuation book review with a handy little quarto by Norwegian media researcher Bard Bord Michalsen. Signs of Civilization: How Punctuation Changed History (2019) intrigued me for its provocative title. Apart from the inevitable whistle-stop tour through the history of punctuation, I hoped the book would explore both what it thinks civilization is, and how that is changed or not through such seemingly innocuous minuscule semantically meaningless marks like dots and dashes. I say the book, but it’s of course the author who fails to live up to expectations.

Signs of Civilisation

Of course, like all punctuation books for the general public (or indeed all books on the topic for whatever readership?), the author feels the need to both apologize for his quirky subject matter and convince that, yes, these random scatterings of ‘flyshit’ are actually worth giving attention  to (not my genius words on semicolons, alas, but Edward Abbey). I expected that. I expected a certain kind of bouncy breezy tone. But I didn’t expect the astonishingly superficial approach to “civilization”, that is, the lack of any approach at all.

Life is short and art is long, so a thorough unpacking of that most loaded of terms would be misplaced in such a book as this; yet one wishes at least some kind of acknowledgement, some nod, towards the complexity of the concept. Because of course, civilization (whatever that is) is desirable according to the book, and of course, that desirable civilization (whatever that is) is Western.

An ‘advanced punctuation system has been nothing less than one of the driving forces in the development of our entire western civilization.’ P.6

The Greeks didn’t have much punctuation to speak of, and were pretty advanced. So were the Arabs in Spain, or the Persians, whose languages, perhaps, have a grammar that simply doesn’t need punctuation to clarify. Perhaps our old English is just too weak, and in need of non-alphabetical little helpers. On Arabic punctuation, and grammatical parsing, I refer you to future posts. And anyway, can one not speak of a society as a civilization without writing? Can one please not speak about civilization at all?

While never stating as much, I think the book means to say that punctuation enables greater speed in reading (also, amongst others, via silent reading), and greater clarity of understanding, hence smoother communication overall. Smoother communication leads to better relationships over long distances, which leads to increased trade and economy, which encourages improvements in technology, which feeds back into communication making that faster and smoother.

And here I am, reading on and on, patiently asking myself when the author is going to speak about the messiness that characterises communication. Most of the time anyway. The unintended glitches, the deliberate obfuscations, ambitious ambiguities. Life and literature. The stuff that’s more interesting than law and order.

Essentially, the driving assumption of the book is nefarious and simply untrue Whiggish history: namely that we move towards improvement, and improvement is clarity, capitalism, light. is It calls punctuation ‘the icing on the cake’, providing the ‘finishing touch’ (p.6) to writing. That both means we have stopped innovating and speak like Shakespeare (which is when the author locates that fixing and icing), and it means punctuation is an afterthought of language, rather than a co-evolutionary phenomenon. It’s all just too neat and pretty.

The rest of the book is an innocent assembly of anecdotes (such as Kurt Vonnegut, describing the semi-colon as bisexual because it can’t decide it wants to belong to the light comma pause or the heavy colon).

The core tenet of Signs of Civilization is intriguing: take punctuation seriously. Take writing seriously. But it fails to deliver a thoughtful, (self-)critical exploration of its own terms that it cannot even find its way into introductory courses on the topic. Thus I turn to the magisterial David Crystal and his exquisite book on the topic.