Do Texts Need Books?

        What is a "book"?  In its earliest usage, "bóc" is an Old English word derived from Middle High German "buoch," or "writing tablet."  The OED has become skeptical about linking it directly with MHG "bóc" or "beech tree," but the tablet-board-tree linkage still seems persuasive, just not direct in the etymological sense.  So books are a form of container, a medium for carrying text around.  The "codex" book, separate pages sewn together at one edge, replaced the scroll, a far older book-technology, when Christian authors elevated the codex from its typical use in the Roman Empire as a memorandum recorder to the technology used to record the most sacred religious texts, the origins of the Gospels.  Both Jews and pagan Romans continued to use scrolls for secular and sacred texts, and even today Jewish sacred texts are recorded on scrolls, but Christian cultural hegemony made the codex almost the sole text-preservation medium in the post-Imperial era, after the Western Empire fell in 476 C.E.  The oldest books, because they were made, like scrolls, from the hides of calves, goats, pigs, deer, or other animals, were rare and expensive.  They tended to be used to preserve only the most important, most sacred, politically or philosophically profound documents.  Ordinary vernacular information could be remembered well enough by the mostly illiterate Anglo-European population, and what records we have of secular, vernacular texts (e.g., Beowulf, Chaucer) often are recorded in the margins of or as additions to books containing religious texts, which assured the vernacular text's survival.  For an example, see the digital facsimile of the Auchinleck Manuscript (now National Library of Scotland Advocates MS 19.2.1).  It starts with the life of Pope Gregory I, but follows it with the romance, "King of Tars," and after many other sacred texts it preserves the only surviving copies of important short vernacular romances like "Lay le Freyne."  It was the Norton Anthology before print--in fact, it probably was "the library" for many of its owners.

        When printing with moveable type was introduced in late-Medieval Germany (c. 1459-60), the first full-length book published was, of course, a Bible, the famous Gutenberg Bible.  You can see the Harry Ransom Center's selected images from The Gutenberg Bible (circa 1454) (U. Texas, Austin).  Secular texts soon followed, but for the first hundred years of printing, most printers invested far more paper and ink in sacred texts than in secular texts.  If you were a late-Medieval or Early Modern printer like William Caxton, England's first publisher, how would you choose what secular texts to print?  Remember, there were relatively few readers, but would that make picking books for them harder or easier?  In any event, the new technology of the printed paper book transformed Anglo-European culture by multiplying the rewards for becoming literate even as other cultural changes were encouraging instability in the old social system and offering opportunities for newly literate people to rise through the newly reorganizing layers of social class.  Book production and literacy are both a cause and an effect of these changes, and the end product lasted until the late twentieth century when the last paper-only books were published but before the advent of the "born-digital" document.

        The future of the book is in doubt.  The most obvious challenge is the online text, like this one.  Click here for an instructive graphical representation of the volume of text produced in various formats (print, digital) since 1986.  For an important recent way to "bind" individual web pages, see "Blaise Aguera y Arcas: Jaw-dropping Photosynth demo," available online at:  Before Aguera y Arcas went to work for Microsoft on this new document storage and access product, he had done undergraduate work in computer science at Princeton University with Paul Needham and helped Needham demonstrate that the type forms in the Gutenberg Bible could not have come from traditional "matrices" that would have produced large numbers of identical pieces of type This led Needham to propose the sand-casting hypothesis, by which each individual piece of type was individually cast from shapes poked into hard-packed, fine sand by artisans working with specially shaped rods.  Do take a look at both the Gutenberg images, "jaw-dropping" in their own way as a piece of text technology, and the Photosynth demonstration, which just might be the "library" your children will use.