In his The Book, Keith Houston has given us a history of the components of the print book. He is an entertaining writer with a talent for telling bizarre stories about the inventors, scholars, entrepreneurs, explorers, rascals and authors who have contributed to the evolution of the book. It is also a carefully designed and well produced work. Considered as a physical product it is a very well made book, few books are now so well made. The paper is excellent, the type clear, as is the design: with sufficient and ample illustrations to illustrate the crucial points (one of Durer’s woodcuts, a photo of hieroglyphs and a Fourdrinier paper making machine etc). These are not small matters, they help to make a good book. For some tastes, the design and ornamentation may be over-elaborate, but the generous ornaments and decoration are put to good didactic use, since we are shown examples of these devices and elements: what they are, how they fall on the page and what they are called. The first occurrence of a ‘footnote’, ‘part title’, ‘drop cap’, ‘dingbat’, use of ‘italic’ or ‘poetry extract’ is explicitly called out with indicative brackets and captioned. The book is well written and it will be well read, since Houston is in almost every paragraph informative as well as entertaining.
Yet it is also in several ways a very odd construction, driven by an eccentric thesis, a thesis which almost self-destructs as the book concludes. Note well the subtitle which states that the book is the most powerful object of our time, but reflect also that the book is a social object as well as being a physical object. Houston’s exploration is deliberately and narrowly limited to the book as a physical object, yet the sub-title: ‘a cover to cover exploration of the most powerful object of our time’ can only apply to the “book” as the social or intellectual object that we read, digest, criticise, collect, give, borrow, remember, cite and revise. The social side of books and the extraordinary diversity of their cultural, intellectual and education function is barely mentioned. If Houston’s object is purely the physical book — not the book as intellectual object — then it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain that it is the most important object of our time. It is at least arguable (and he hints at the possibility) that now would really be the time for an obituary of the book — since the physical book is being increasingly challenged, for some purposes superseded by, the digital book or digital devices that use books.
Houston’s The Book and his analysis is strictly concerned with the book as a material object, and with the physical and chemical qualities of its ancestors and components: cuneiform tablets, papyrus scrolls, parchment manuscripts, on the one hand, lithographic greasy ink, copperas gum arabic iron gall inks, the Egyptian and Chinese invention of ‘India’ ink or the minium (red lead) or gold leaf of the illuminated manuscripts on the other hand.
The book’s focus is unremittingly material and physical, and we should not be misled by the rather abstract terms which Houston uses to carve it into four parts: ‘the Page’, ‘the Text’, ‘Illustrations’ and ‘Form’. For in this case ‘the Page’ is the substance on which writing or print may be placed — papyrus, parchment and paper, as we now have it; and he does not consider the way in which ‘pages’, which we may count, have become, especially since the invention of print, the primary way in which books may be linked, referenced, fixed and relied upon. The pagination of books and the formalisation and regimentation of writing and reading through explicit and uniform pagination is a theme which would take us straight into the book’s role as a social, intellectual and organisational object. Pagination has much to do with the power of books and their social connectedness. Certainly, books were paginated well before they were printed, but once we had a manufacturing process that could replicate identical pages with identical content we had the makings of the most powerful object of our time, and pagination is an organisational principle which has been literally imposed on a physical process. Houston does little to explore the inventions that have made pages so useful and so social. He is better on paper than off or about the page, and his first part might better have been titled “Papyrus or paper”.
To take the last of his four parts, the title: ‘Form’, may suggest a highly abstract category to explain how books with subtly different structures execute discrete functions: psalters, prayer books, chap books, accounts, dictionaries, textbooks, plays, reference works, periodicals, anthologies, and collected works perhaps? Because the form which books have adopted, and which has been invented for them, has in almost all cases been closely related to the functions that they are meant to perform. The physical product is prepared and designed with a view to its likely use. But Houston’s ‘Form’ scarcely touches on the myriad uses and functions of the printed book, for him the form of the book is entirely material, a matter of how it is made rather than why it is made that way. He focuses entirely on the physical construction of the book and its predecessors: the invention of the scroll, the wax tablet, gatherings, the codex, ways of sewing and glueing sections, even providing didactic encouragement as to how the readers might make and fold her own duodecimo gathering from a full page diagram included in the book. When Houston writes about the book’s form he is mainly interested in what publishers or marketeers would call ‘the product”, an item that might be shipped or returned, and which Amazon will treat as a unit of inventory, but he is not concerned with and scarcely touches on the economics of its mass production and distribution, the manner and quality of its production. The role or profession of ‘publisher’ is not mentioned and bookselling is equally ignored. How Oxyrhynchus papyrus survived and reached us, or the British Library’s experiments with “graft polymerization” to preserve books on acid-free paper are more the focus of his attention.
Each of the parts within The Book follow a broadly chronological order and this leads to a montaged, cut-up, four track, product history in which the Egyptian, Chinese and Gutenberg-era contributions are dealt with in each part and it is not easy to keep in mind the overall historical and cultural context in which each invention is made. The Egyptian contributions for example are taken from a span of at least three millennia and the still obscure invention of hieroglyphics is vastly separated from the Library of Alexander of which we get a vivid but still highly speculative account: and a more recent example the inventions which drove new forms of paper-making and typesetting in the 19th and 20th centuries had rather more to do with requirements of newspaper publishing or packaging production than with the manufacture of books, and a proper understanding of how we came to have linotype typesetters and offset lithography need to be placed in this broad economic context of which books were a relatively small sector. Houston’s segmented analysis of the physical components or parts of the book gives us a ‘supply chain’ view of industrial evolution, and his breakdown of the modern book may remind us of the way Ifixit will tear down and analyse each new Samsung or Apple phone days after its launch. A tear down of a mobile phone tells us how it is made and is often of some use if we are deciding whether we want to buy it, but the physical tear down of a book, even this book The Book can shed little light on what we will learn by reading it, or if we might want to buy it. His own book, for example is, as he informs us in a technical three page Colophon “printed on acid-free, pH-neutral freesheet paper made by the Yuen Foong Yu Group of Taiwan, produced according to the PREPS sustainability standard and weighing in at eighty-one pounds per ream of 500 sheets at the more-or-less standard size of 25 by 38 inches.” But however it was printed and bound we need to read it to understand it, and what it tells us has little (but perhaps in this case courtesy of the Colophon something) to do with how it was made or manufactured.
This ‘supply chain’ view of the history of the book, points his historical account in the direction of a genealogy of inventions and processes. Sometimes the genealogy can be persuasive, the early printers and typesetters borrowed extensively from the scribes who made such beautiful illuminated manuscripts; contemporary designers still find inspiration in the type of Aldus Manutius. But an undue attention to origins runs the risk of landing us in the swamp of genetic fallacies. For example, Houston is confident that “Books are rectangular because cows, goats and sheep are rectangular too” this claim is presumed to be supported by the hypothesis that parchment was first folded in the way that it was because this would be an efficient way of using up as much as possible of the area of the animal’s skin, roughly rectangular as it lay on the tanner’s table. But papyrus and tablets were treated and made as rectangles for writing and reading, long before sheep were slaughtered for parchment, and we would no longer have reason to make rectangular paper books if that were not by far the most convenient way in which to replicate lines of characters and pages of text. Language, its linear and character-based regularity, has as much as anything to do with the way that lists, verses, epistles and proclamations are laid out. There are many deeper reasons why lines of characters are broadly straight, pages most often rectangular and books designed to fit in the hand.
A history of the book as a physical object has to take full account of the social and intellectual purposes to which books are put. Houston’s evolutionary account pays too much attention to the techniques of construction and manufacture, and pays scant attention to the normal trajectory of historians of the book and of print. Houston’s research is extensive and he has consulted and references many authorities — we cannot complain about the citations he offers but it is remarkable that he has largely ignored the rich literature that has explored the history of print and its impact on European and other cultures (no mention in his bibliography or notes for Eisenstein, Febvre and Martin, Darnton, Johns, Ong, and Goody). While some of these exponents and scholars of the work of print as an ‘agent of change’ pursue a progressive and Whig view of the growing influence and pervasiveness of print, a perspective which moves us in a sense contrary to Houston’s fondness for a backward glancing investigation of material invention, but the Whig view should not be ignored and it does suck into its accounts the broader economic and social factors which drive inventions: the ways in which universal education has pushed us to mass produced textbooks, the requirements of science that have proliferated scientific and technical periodicals, the ways in which religions moved and were moved by texts, documents and books which they in turn replicated and spread. It is these broad developments and pervasive commercial and cultural impacts which may ultimately justify the claim that the book is indeed the most powerful object of our time.
And can the book really be the most important object of our time, if no attention is given to the rise, the possibly stunted and premature development of the ebook? For an understanding of this question we turn to the ebook version of The Book.
Keith Houston’s opening sentences gives us a riddle which get us to the heart of his subject and threatens to upend the premise of his work: “This is a book about books. Until recently, this would have been an unambiguous statement.” I think this is still an unambiguous statement, and the riddle comes from the phrase “this book” which is what linguists call an “indexical”. It is the “this” not the “book” that is giving Houston some trouble. The sense of the sentence varies depending on the context in which it is produced or reproduced. In one context “this book” refers to a printed book which you may grasp in your hand and in another context it may refer to an ebook that you may be scanning on your Kindle or iPhone. But the book can very well be one and the same book in various contexts. Houston however moves on from his perceived ambiguity to explain that his book is not about ebooks but about physical books, books printed on paper (from now p-books not e-books) in all their material molecular reality. Houston tells us that the physical book his subject matter, has its very existence threatened by a future of computer books and electronic books. Can this really be? Are ebooks so very different, and are they threatening?
The paradox is exposed should we then read The Book in its e-book format, as we have done for this review. In that case, to avoid any possible ambiguity, the book that we are reading is an e-book about p-books (excluding e-books) and there is really nothing exceptional or threatening about that, and no ambiguity in the ‘book’ word used. The contrast only matters because Houston has chosen not to write about e-books and he has chosen not to look at the remarkable way in which e-books often ape their p-book ancestors and how they often fail in the attempt. The paradox is that we really can read a purely digital book all about books in their physical and material constitution and there is no detectable meaning or proposition (to use the philosopher’s word) that the p-book has and the e-book misses out. If this is correct, it surely suggests that whatever it is that makes an individual book the book that it is, has little to do with its realisation in physical or digital form. So, to undermine Houston’s premise, why would should an author, interested in the technology of print and paper and history of these inventions, focus on the physical and material aspect of books since we can now see that in large part the functionality of books, if not their material nature, now can be more or less adequately replicated electronically? In fact the functionality of p-books perhaps cannot yet be adequately replicated automatically by the e-book version and this is an issue of considerable concern. But this demonstrable inadequacy in the current generation of ebooks suggests that they or the software that drives them ought to be a lot better. We are still pretty clearly in the first generation of ebooks.
As it happens “this” book, by Houston, about books that I am reading really is an ebook for the Amazon Kindle, purchased at a price (€17.60) very close to the price of the much better p-book version, it is being read in the Kindle app on one of Apple’s iPads. Certainly in reading the e-book we are aware of differences between the physical and digital forms of the work, but the texts are much the same and if they were different we would be suggesting that Houston had written two books. In spite of all the differences I am content with the idea that the book that I am reading on my iPad is the same book as the handsomely bound hardback by my side, different versions and indeed different copies but in a straightforward way the same book. Much closer to each other than the audio-book version is to either. Both versions of the work are from the same publisher, are sold by Amazon, authored by Keith Houston and read by me. The e-book presents itself as a valid and readable version of the p-book. Both versions contain almost exactly the same text, words, letters and spaces, in very much the same order and with very similar illustrations.
Does the plausible similarity of the e-book version of his own work undermine the focus that Houston throughout maintains on his physical and material parts and features of the traditional book? Perhaps it does, but on one matter I join battle on his side (I think I am an ally). The current technology of e-books is so poor and stunted that there is very little to be said for them and the print version of The Book is much to be preferred to the e-book junior partner. This is one reason why the ebooks that we now have are no real threat to the continued value and usefulness of p-books. They are too poor and feeble to be any threat.
However we can also recognise that in a few respects the e-book is better than the p-book. It can be easily searched; it can be adapted to my needs (large type or small); it effectively occupies no space; text from it can be easily copied and transferred to a note of my own; it has none of the physical costs inherent in a print book etc. Why then should we feel that the e-book is on the whole much inferior to the p-book? First the rather careful and taut design of the print book is lost. This is no criticism of the publisher, or indeed of the designer or author. The current ebook software and standards are designed to lose the precise shape and arrangement of a printed page. They endeavour to include all the content,This Book on the Kindle does however lose a few of the ornaments in the p-book, and by shedding all the rigour of precise design and shape they present the content in a fluid form that allows the ebook to mould itself to innumerable possibilities for the device and the reader. Almost everything except the order of the text and the illustrations can be customised. Precisely because Houston’s p-book has been so carefully confected and well-designed the e-book is, by contrast, a relatively sloppy pudding. The view that ebooks should flow and re-flow is still quite widely held in the publishing and bookselling industry, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that many books (especially beautiful books) are not well served by these solutions. However this current defect should not be a show-stopper. Better reading apps will be built. We already have formats for digital books that are very faithful to the high design values of p-books: PDF files, or Google Books or Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ all do a better job than the Kindle or ePub standards. Because Amazon has a near monopoly of the commercial consumer ebook market, it will be probably need some disruptive innovator to move things forward, but the relative stagnation of the ebook market in the last 18 months suggests that the moment for disruption may be near.
Since Houston’s book is written out of a very strong affection for the physical and material form of print (and papyrogical) culture, and since his book has been designed and conceived so attentively to print production values, it should not surprise us that the e-book is a disappointing version. It is barely acknowledged in the text and should really have been recognised in the Colophon. But given the inadequacies of our current digital book platforms this failure is not surprising. Perhaps a better format option for e-books will soon emerge: it will probably bemore dynamic and more veridical, able to capture high design.
The ongoing transition from print books to digital books will probably be as disruptive and much quicker than the transition from manuscript to print books, but it seems certain to happen. It will happen because all our language use is now becoming much more digital, more encoded, more global and more interactive. We shall find out how this works out, as authors continue to write books in digital culture with innovative writing tools, of which there are plenty. The pessimists who think that digital books will either destroy or wholly replace print books are very probably mistaken. If Houston had fixed his attention on a broader horizon and given more emphasis to the way in which the evolution of print technologies has attracted and invaded much of what we do with culture and language, he might become more confident about the survivability of books, his own included. The book will continue to be (one of) the most important object(s) of our time provided authors in digital cultures still want to write at length or in depth.