Lit by lightning

Although Earth is several billion years old – sorry, Creationists – mankind can be forgiven for thinking the whole ball of wax got started some 5,400 years ago. For it was then that humanity spawned an invention that would become one of the world’s great turning points and dividing lines, defining the very nature of history itself.

That invention was writing and, by extension, the book, which has gone from tablet (as in Sumerian clay) to tablet (as in personal computer), proving that the French were right when they said the more things change, the more they stay the same.

That moment when the ancient Sumerians, who lived in what is now Iraq, began to record their business transactions in cuneiform pictographs on clay sounds pretty mundane. But it has proved to be akin to the heroic Prometheus defying the wrath of Zeus and eternal torture to bring fire down from Heaven to mankind. It’s a scene depicted – not so coincidentally – in Edward Laning’s painting on The McGraw Rotunda ceiling in The New York Public Library, with Prometheus in all his nude male glory shielding his eyes as he carries sparking lightning bolts to the astonished mortals.

Certainly, self-styled bibliomaniac Jacques Bonnet sees writing this way.

“With writing, and therefore reading, humanity did not just make a quantitative cultural leap, it completely changed the scale of human thought,” he writes in “Phantoms on the Bookshelves,” one of several recent books about books. “Humans became complex thinking beings.”

The paper chase

Alphabet writing began with the ancient Egyptians, who used papyrus to create sheets and scrolls for that purpose. Actually, though, the ancients wrote on whatever they could – stone, metal and tree bark. (The word “book” is related to the word “beech” in German, Old English and many Slavic languages.)

The earliest writings were government, temple and commercial records stored in archives, the first libraries. Private libraries began around the fifth century B.C. with the Greeks, who also gave us the word “biblios” – meaning “book” – from the Phoenician port Byblos, where papyrus was transported to Greece.

The early “tomes” (from another Greek word) persisted in scroll form through late antiquity, when the book as we know it – pages, covers – was developed, taking off among members of the growing Christian sect. This was partly because the book was more mobile than the scroll and therefore easier to conceal from official Rome, which did not approve of the new religion, to put it mildly. Ironically, when the Roman Empire collapsed, it was Christendom that kept the culture of Rome alive, with monks copying individual texts painstakingly by hand, creating jewel-colored illuminated manuscripts on parchment (vellum), made from animal skin.

Copying texts has also been an important part of the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam. Today, Judaism continues to mandate the use of a scribe to produce Torah scrolls.

It was during the seventh century that Irish monks introduced spacing between words, which ultimately facilitated reading as an activity that could be done alone in silence. Six centuries later, the rise of the university created a demand for more texts and thus multiple copyists, who would work on the unbound pages of a book to speed up the process.

But greater innovations that would revolutionize the book were already in the works. The Chinese – who first made paper as early as 200 B.C. – had invented the woodblock technique, which could create and ink reliefs of pages for printing. Then in the late 1440s, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type, regarded by some to be the greatest invention of the modern era. Communication became increasingly more fluid, inspiring and inspired by the speedier production of pamphlets, fliers, newspapers, journals, magazines and books, including the novel, which emerged in the 18th century with works like Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela,” about a virtuous damsel in great erotic distress.


The steam press at the beginning of the 19th century, the monotype and linotype presses at its end and the rise of the mass-market paperback in the first half of the 20th century all contributed to the popularity of books. But books’ technology remained virtually unchanged from Johannes G.’s time.

Until now: The digital revolution has been one to equal Gutenberg’s. Bookworms can now download multiple works on their computers and devices like Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Sony’s eReader. The Guardian, a British newspaper, recently reported that in the United Kingdom, sales of Amazon Kindle e-books now outstrip the company’s print books – a phenomenon that has already happened on this side of the pond.

Libraries, adopting an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em attitude, were among the first to embrace the digital revolution with online card catalogs and works, laptops for loan and dedicated Wi-Fi spaces. The writing is on the wall, so to speak.

Or is it? E-books require devices that in turn require power sources and are not always reliable, particularly if you spill something on them. And given the territoriality of the companies that produce them, e-books aren’t necessarily cheaper, although that may come as cold comfort to the writers who are making less in e-publishing than they would in print.

Studies suggest that the jury is still out on the e-book. A recent sampling by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found that children ages 3 to 6 lost the narrative thread when they read stories in enhanced e-books – which contain videos and other links – as opposed to in print or basic e-book form. In a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, respondents said that while they like the portability and availability of e-books, they prefer print when sharing a book with a child or others.

Far from creating fewer physical books, print-on-demand devices like the Espresso Book Machine may create more in much the same way that the paperless office created more of a paper trail, Clive Thompson wrote in the December 2011 issue of Wired magazine.

“When you make something easier to do, people do more of it.”

Then there are those who are willing print to survive, like Tarrytown writer, humorist and bibliomaniac Joe Queenan, author of the new “One For the Books.”

“Books possess alchemical powers, imbued with the ability to turn ennui into ecstasy,” he writes. “We believe that the objects themselves have magical powers. People who prefer e-books may find this baffling or silly. They think that books merely take up space. This is true, but so do your children and Prague and the Sistine Chapel.”

He then tells the story – one that he writes would never work on Kindle – about a couple who carry out their love affair via books. She breaks it off, and he, devastated, casts aside her literary offerings until one day he relents, rereads – and rediscovers her.

He keeps rereading the books but never finishes her final gift – having found a love that will last forever.


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