When I dropped out of academia (for the second time in my life) in the early 1990s, because of serious (mental) health problems, I throttled back my life-long interest in the history of science, giving my energy instead to recovering my mental equilibrium. When, after a break of several years, I returned to an intensive engagement with the history of science, one of the first things I did was to take part in a seminar at the university on Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. This led me to the question, why was De revolutionibus published in Nürnberg? Regular readers will know that I live just down the road from Nürnberg, so this a fairly natural question for me to ask. My attempts to find an answer led to an in depth study of the life and work of Johannes Petreius, the printer publisher who published De revolutionibus and to the early history of the printed book, as Petreius stood in a direct line of descent from Gutenberg through his Basler relatives who had learnt the black art directly from its inventor.
The more general question of the influence of the printed book on the evolution of modern science led quite naturally to a deepened interest in the early history of scientific book publication in which Nürnberg again played a role through Regiomontanus the first printer publisher of scientific books.
Curiously Nürnberg was also the site of the first paper mill north of the Alps, paper being an essentially ingredient in mass production of printed books and this fact led to a strong interest in the history of paper making and to the materials that preceded paper as a medium for transmitting the written word.
Another seminar that I took part in at the university, following my return to the history of science, concerned the history of illustrations in scientific texts, which awakened my interest in the various methods of illustration reproduction and their histories. Another Nürnberger, Albrecht Dürer, played a significant role in that history.
Over the years I acquired a deep interest, and a modicum of knowledge of the histories of all the various aspects of recording knowledge in word and picture, so it was not surprising that my interest was drawn almost magnetically to a fairly recent new publication with the title, The Book: A Cover to Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Times. An interest made even stronger by the fact that the author of this tome is Keith Houston, the author of both the book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, a serious candidate for ultimate geek bedtime reading, and of the blog of the same name. Unable to resist temptation I acquired a copy of The Book.
Having delved deeply into the subject over a number of years I expected to be entertained, Houston is a witty writer, but not really to learn much that was new. I was mistaken, even though I consider myself well informed on the topic I took away much that was new from Houston’s excellent study of the topic.
The Book is divided into four sections, The Page, The Text, Illustrations and Form. The first deals with the history of writing material from papyrus over parchment to paper and the progress from hand-made paper to modern industrial paper production. The second deals with methods of bringing writing onto that material starting with Babylonian cuneiform symbols impressed into clay tablets, outlining the history of ink and moving on to the history of moveable type printing. Once again covering the arc from the cradle of civilisation to the twentieth century. Part three does the same for pictures on the page. The final part deals with the forms that books have taken over the centuries from the papyrus roles to the codex and the various sizes and forms that the codex has adopted down the years. We also get a detailed history of the evolution of bookbinding.
Houston has researched his topic exceedingly well and delivers his cornucopia of information in a well-digested and easily accessible form for the reader, with a healthy portion of humour. One aspect of the book that appealed to me as a history of science myth buster is Houston’s use of multiple layers of historical story telling. For example, he takes a topic and tells his readers how its history was understood and presented in the nineteenth century. Then he explains how modern research showed this to be wrong and represents the history from this standpoint. Having gone into great detail he then explodes this version by showing why it can’t be true. I’m not going to go here into any great detail, as it would spoil the fun for future readers, and it really is fun, but Houston gives his readers a useful lesson in the evolution of the historiography of his subject.
One thing that has to be said is that The Book is beautifully produced with much obvious loving care for detail. It is printed with a very attractive typeface on lovely paper both of which make it a real pleasure to hold and to read. It comes bound in heavy light-grey carton boards joined together by dark read spinal binding tape. Its gatherings are, as befits a book about the history of the book, stitched and not glued. Throughout the book, starting with the cover, all of the bits and pieces that a book consists of are bracketed and labelled with their corrected technical terms. The book is beautifully illustrated, each illustration possessing an extensive explanatory text of its own. There are a helpful further reading list, extensive endnotes (as always I would have preferred footnotes) and an equally extensive index. Despite being just over 400 pages long, and being a high quality, beautifully produced, bound book it retails at a ridiculously low price. The publishers offer it at $29.95 but it can be had for less than twenty pounds, euro or dollar depending on your location.
If you have any interest in the history of the book as an object or the history of moveable type printing then I can only recommend acquiring a copy of Keith Houston’s wonderful book on the book.