Mar 28, 2014

Not dead yet

Is this a book?

London, British Library MS 89074. Image: British Library.

I’d say yes; it’s a fifteenth-century English-Latin glossary, the Catholicon Anglicum, in its original binding. It's handwritten rather than printed, but I think most people would call this a book.

On New Year’s Day, 2014, Robert Bolick reflected intelligently and thoughtfully on the recurring meme of ‘the death of the book’ in this blog post. Since the early 1990s, various people, mostly journalists, have been loudly proclaiming ‘the death of reading’, ‘the death of the book’, ‘the end of books’. In 1991, the murderer was television. More recently, it’s the e-reader. Cautionary voices have responded by noting that it is too early to pronounce the epitaph for books, that new media have not killed reading, and that something that continually needs to be thumped on the head and declared dead is, on the contrary, probably not dead yet.

Underlying all these obituaries is a very odd assumption: that a book is a bound paper codex containing printed text. This idea is odd because for most of the time that the word book has existed in English, it did not refer to such an object. Medieval translators of the Bible into English used the word book to refer to objects that, in their biblical contexts, were clearly scrolls. In Luke 4.17, when Jesus reads from Isaiah the prophet, he unrolls a scroll; the Latin phrase is revolvit librum, which the translator of the West Saxon Gospels renders as he ├ża boc unfeold, ‘he opened [literally ‘unfolded’] the book’, in Old English.

Cambridge, Corpus Christ College MS 140, fol. 79r, detail
And for almost all of the Middle Ages, when book was used to refer to a codex, it was made of parchment and it was handwritten. Thus it is not only possible, but also completely sensible, to say that books existed for centuries before print technology; and, if we grant that, then the printed book has existed for only a brief period (about 20% of the timeline if we insist that books are codexes, about 7% if we go back to systematic collections of writing on clay tablets) in the history of the book.
books existed for centuries before print technology

But thinking of a book as the product of print technology also has a strong precedent in scholarship, and particularly in the academic discipline now known as ‘book history’. Although the scope of ‘book history’ is often extended back in time to the origins of writing and forward in time to electronic and digital communication technologies (think clay tablets to e-readers), the centre of gravity for the study of book history is still (Western) ‘print culture’. Thus the subtitle of Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s The Coming of the Book (L’apparation du livre, 1958) in English translation was The Impact of Printing 1450-1800; Febvre and Martin begin with the introduction of paper to Europe. More recently, Joseph A. Dane’s What is a Book? (2012) is subtitled The Study of Early Printed Books, and its historical scope is the same as Febvre and Martin’s, that is, 1450-1800. It’s common for university programs in book history to be also dedicated to the study of print culture (as at Toronto and St Andrews), and for journals and book series devoted to book history to focus on printed books. Robert Darnton, announcing the birth of this academic discipline in ‘What is the History of Books?’ (Daedalus, 1982), defined book history as ‘the social and cultural history of communication by print’.

I have no quarrel with book historians, and those who study the history of print technology do very important and interesting work that is intimately related to mine; I rely on their scholarship constantly. But, as a medievalist, when I am confronted with the idea that the book did not come into existence until the mid-fifteenth century, or that medieval manuscripts were merely precursors of real books, I am surprised and baffled.

I grant that there are historical reasons for this idea. One is a traditional divide between codicology (usually the study of manuscript books) and bibliography (often, although not exclusively, the study of printed books – see the introduction to Dane’s What is a Book?). This means that those who study manuscripts and those who study printed books often inhabit different worlds and do not talk to each other enough.

Another is the topos of the ‘printing revolution’. It appeared in the work of media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962), and was most influentially articulated, for historians, by Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (2 vols.). In 1980, when this work was published, Eisenstein could call the introduction of print technology to Europe ‘The Unacknowledged Revolution’; now it is the revolution that is too often acknowledged. Any time one looks closely at early print culture – as Adrian Johns does in The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (1998) – the ‘revolution’ disintegrates into a messier complexity, until one is left wondering if there was a ‘revolution’ at all, and even if there was, whether it really made much of a difference.

Histories of information technology typically skip over the Middle Ages. Michael E. Hobart and Zachary S. Schiffman’s fine book Information Ages (1998) leaps from Aristotle at the end of chapter 3 to print at the start of chapter 4; the Middle Ages are mentioned merely as an ‘antecedent’ to print culture. Nicole Howard’s The Book: The Life Story of a Technology (2005) assigns the status of ‘ancestors’ to ‘books before print’, but implies that these are not really books, because the ‘infancy’ of the book begins in 1450 (the ‘maturity’ of books, according to Howard, is the nineteenth century). James Gleick’s award-winning book The Information (2011) executes an even greater leap from the invention of writing to Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabetical of 1604 – clay tablets to the first English dictionary – just lightly mentioning one medieval figure, the twelfth-century John of Salisbury, along the way. These omissions imply that nothing much happened, in terms of information technology, before print. It is often declared that we are now experiencing a revolution in information and communications technology, the ‘computer revolution’ or ‘information revolution’ or ‘digital revolution’; and its historical precedent is most often declared to be the ‘printing revolution’. But what we do know about the impact of print technology should make us a lot more cautious. Indeed, the more we investigate it, the less it seems like a revolution. And, if that is the case, perhaps the digital revolution also isn’t as revolutionary as we think, or perhaps we need to look elsewhere in history for a better analogy.

Why does this matter, and why it is not just a quibble about words? After all, book historians should be allowed to define their discipline any way they like, surely. But there are at least two problems with the idea that the book is always a product of print technology. One is that thinking of Gutenberg’s printing press as the birthplace of the book renders invisible, or at least very faint, a thousand years and more of technological innovation before print; it prevents us from finding the true origins of such tools and techniques as organising a text for information retrieval; and it distorts (usually by exaggeration) our knowledge of the changes brought about by print technology. The second is that it tends to assume a form of technological determinism: the printing press came and changed everything, and now digital devices are going to change everything again. If you are emotionally attached to the printed book, you collect first editions, cherish your typewriter (will we ever see its like again?), and publish bitter eulogies on dead tree products. If you throw in your lot with the new media, you read everything on a screen, make friends with people whose hands you will never shake (some of them might be bots, anyway), and dance around a bonfire heated to 451 degrees Fahrenheit. But both these reactions are ridiculous. Most if not all of the ways in which we now read printed material were developed before the invention of moveable metal type; the printed book is not the pinnacle of modern civilisation (the development of modern sanitation systems has a much better claim); and when the world ends, it will not be because you can’t find a decent paperback copy of Middlemarch anywhere.

If the book was born when Johannes Gutenberg used a modified winepress to transfer ink from little bits of metal onto a sheet of paper, then it had a gestation period of perhaps five millennia, it had a lifespan of perhaps five centuries, and it will perhaps die when we stop using ink and paper. But I submit that the book was not born because of the printing press, and therefore that it will not die because of the e-reader. Writing did not kill speech; the codex did not kill the scroll; print did not kill script; the screen will not kill the page. If the printed book is not the book, but only one of the many manifestations of the book through history, then there is no reason why the book should not be reimagined in new forms beyond print. In that case, what we are witnessing now is not the death of the book, but its reinvention.

Yin Liu


Bolick, Robert. ‘Ringing the Changes on “The End of Books” (2014).’ Books on Books. Blog post, 2014 January 1.

Dane, Joseph A. What is a Book? The Study of Early Printed Books. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 2012.

Darnton, Robert. ‘What is the History of Books?’ Daedalus 111.3 (1982) 65-83.

Febvre, Lucien, and Henri-Jean Martin. The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800. London: Verso, 1976.

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon, 2011.

Hobart, Michael E., and Zachary S. Schiffman. Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

Howard, Nicole. The Book: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005.

Lyons, Martin. A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. [Chapter 3 asks ‘Was there a printing revolution?’ and gives a sceptical answer. Not all the details in this chapter are accurate, though; for example, running headers appeared in medieval books from the 12th century onward and were not ‘an innovation of the printed book’.]

Price, Leah. ‘Dead Again.’ New York Times, 10 August 2012.

Thanks to Paul Hansen for pointing me to the Old English translation of Luke 4.17 (quoted in the OED entry for the noun book).

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