When a 21st century reader walks into a bookstore and pulls one brightly covered book from the multiple shelves of titles vying for attention or when a reader opens that all-too-familiar Amazon package with its signature arrow containing the book he ordered two days ago, there comes a set of expectations about the book in his or her hands. The book is most certainly a codex, the most commonly recognized structure of books today. It will have a cover with a title and the author’s name, paper pages printed on the recto and verso in one of a variety of languages, usually a table of contents and/or an introduction, the main body or treatise of the text, and sometimes a section of notes or appendices. This is the book in its most standard, mechanically reproduced, and pervasive form.
Books predating the codex, though, came in many forms like the papyrus scroll or the clay tablet. If taken in the most general sense, the Oxford English Dictionary reports that the book is, “a written or printed treatise or series of treatises, occupying several sheets of paper or other substances fastened together so as to compose a material whole. In this wide sense, referring to all ages and countries, a book comprehends a treatise written on any material (skin, parchment, papyrus, paper, cotton, silk, palm leaves, bark, tablets of wood, ivory, slate, metal, etc.) put together in any portable form, e.g. that of a long roll, or of separate leaves, hinged, strung, stitched or pasted together.” The notion of the book, here, extends to include any portable material with marks of writing.
The Oxford English Dictionary further notes that “book’s, ‘writing-tablet’ seems to be the most primitive form of the word ‘book.’” This writing tablet could come in many forms – a slab of stone on which marks were chiseled, a formed piece of clay on which marks were impressed, or a piece of the bark from a tree on which marks were scratched. Although the OED notes that ‘writing-tablet’ was the earliest notion of the book, it also presents a commonly held creation story in which the book is etymologically connected to the beech-tree, “the suggestion being that inscriptions were first made on beechen tablets, or cut in the bark of beech trees.”
This relationship of book to tree reminds us that the metaphor of the book as a vehicle for communication has often been extended to the natural world – the ‘Book of Nature.’ Humans have been reading for far longer than they have been writing – reading animal tracks in the earth, the lines on the backs of tortoises, or the stars in the sky. Even the 18th century illuminator William Blake understood every piece of the world as a material capable of containing writing. WJT Mitchell explains, “For Blake, anything is capable of becoming a text, that is, of bearing significant marks. The earth, the sky, the elements, natural objects, the human body and its garments, the mind itself are all spaces of inscription, sites in which the imagination renders or receives meaning, marking and being marked.”1The ‘Book of Nature’ is an extension of this notion that the entirety of the natural world is a book to be read and understood, most often as a path to understand God himself.
Elizabeth Eisenstein introduces us to Sir Thomas Browne who wrote, “There are two Books from whence I collect my Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of His servant Nature, that universal and publick Manuscript, that les expans’d unto the Eyes of all: those that never saw Him in the one, have discover’d Him in the other.” 2 In addition to the ‘Book of Nature,’ the most direct access to God was through THE book – the book of revelation, the book of the law, the Bible. The tablets of the ten commandments were the supreme book – the law of God written by his own hand, smashed at the sight of the golden calf, and re-inscribed by Moses on Mount Sinai. These were stone tablets, in the most primitive form of ‘book’ that have been copied, re-inscribed, and added to using the forms of handwritten scrolls, hand-copied vellum manuscripts, and printed paper books. Over the centuries, the ‘Book’ of the ‘People of the Book’ has become a collection – not a single treatise, but an assemblage of books grouped and bound together as one. This collection, though, is also a material whole, a book that contains a whole set of rules for its readers’ interactions with the world.
Although the book of nature and the Bible are large books that allow the human to understand his or her relationship with God, books have been used as vehicles of communication for copious subjects in numerous languages. Codices are portable and easily organized means of displaying and receiving all kinds of information – from divine law to science and Greek philosophy to lewd ballads. The codex itself, with its structured covers and pages of content, went through a huge transformation with the dawning of print and Gutenberg’s means of mechanical reproduction. Johanna Drucker comments that, “The shift from scroll to codex in 2nd to 4th centuries and the invention of printing in the 15th century are possibly the two most significant transformations in the technology of book production.” 3 The printing press facilitated a transformation of book production from hand-copied, gilded manuscripts on costly vellum produced in the scriptorium of the medieval monk to treatises printed with moveable type on less expensive paper in the space of the print shop.
The revolution of the printing press points specifically to McLuhan’s famous claim that “the medium is the message.” This underscores the importance of the book as a material container. We must not forget that words are not only signifiers of meaning but that, after the printing revolution, they are pressed ink on a page. McLuhan says that, “…the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph.” 4 We could amend this statement to end that, print is the content of the book. The “medium is the message,” then, is underlined by the fact that the book itself – in its ability to protect coherent sets of words in a bound form, its portability, its linearity, its ability to be widely distributed, read aloud, and copied – shapes “human association and action.” 5 The book does this by facilitating a decline in the need for the skill of memory, allowing for gatherings of groups of books from disassociated times and spaces in a single library space, or changing the spontaneity of oral scholarly debate to the revision of published sentences.
Similarly, McLuhan explains De Touqueville’s realization that the printed word in eighteenth-century France homogenized society. “The typographic principles of uniformity, continuity, and lineality had overlaid the complexities of ancient feudal and oral society.” 6 The medium and materiality of the printed book, not just the content, was a factor in facilitating the French Revolution. Indeed, the revolution of print was a revolution of the material nature of the book and the configurations of ink pressed onto the page. “Repeatability,” says McLuhan, “is the core of the mechanical principle that has dominated our world, especially since the Gutenberg technology. The message of the print and of typography is primarily that of repeatability.” 7
Elizabeth Eisenstein makes a similar argument that the repeatability of print after Gutenberg was an agent of social change in its “way of making fresh observations ‘universal’ and ‘public.” 8 She points out that the repeatability of print allowed for not only the repeatability of words, but also of images, diagrams, maps, and pictures. She notes, “The fact that letters, numbers, and pictures were all alike subject to repeatability by the end of the fifteenth century needs more emphasis. That the printed book made possible new forms of interplay between these diverse elements is perhaps even more significant than the change undergone by picture, number, or letter alone.”9
The revolution of print changed not only the material form of the book, but also what it contained. With its ability to create copies of a treatise, or a treatment of some particular subject, much quicker and cheaper than a handwritten manuscript, Gutengerg’s technology allowed for a much greater variety of expression. Printed books included bibles, practical manuals and texts, and even, “scandal sheets, ‘lewd ballads,’ ‘merrie books of Italie,’ and other ‘corrupted tales in Inke and Paper.’”10 Not only were new voices heard, but the voices of scribal culture were also subject to repeatability. “Although printing transformed the conditions under which texts were produced, distributed, and consumed,” Eisenstein says, “it did so not by discarding the products of scribal culture, but by reproducing them in greater quantities than ever before. Even while the conditions of scribal culture were being outmoded, texts reflecting those conditions were becoming more abundant, and different spirits from different times were being simultaneously released.”11 Eliminating the boundaries of time and space, accessible printed books allowed scholars of different generations and countries to speak in dialogue.
As the revolution of print formally took hold as the dominant and most prolific form of the book in the industrial revolution, there was a transformation not only of the book itself, but the way books were read. Kittler explains, “In order to naturalize writing, writing had to be made painless, and reading had to become silent. Educated people who could skim letters were provided with sights and sounds. Around 1800 the book became both film and record simultaneously – not, however, in a media technological reality, but only in the imaginary of readers’ souls.… As a surrogate of unstorable data flows the book came to power and glory.”12 The linear, continuous, private reading of books made easily accessible by the proliferation of the printing press changed the way readers consumed the information stored in the book.
In Understanding Media McLuhan also points out that, “When machine production was new, it gradually created an environment whose content was the old environment of agrarian life and the arts and crafts. This older environment was elevated to an art form by the new mechanical environment. The machine turned Nature into an art form….Each new technology creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading. Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form.”13 The revolution of the codex from the parchment, hand-copied book to the mechanically reproduced printed book follows this progression. Eisenstein reminds us that much of what was first printed with the printing press were old, classic books passed down through the scriptoriums of monks and on parchment books. The content of the printed book, then, was often the parchment book and the parchment book became an art form – one that shows up in special collections rooms in our libraries and on display in the collections of museums.
Although the printed, paper book became the dominant form of the book for centuries after Gutenberg’s invention, it was not immune from the pressures of new technology. The book continues to be threatened as a means of communication by the flourishing of new technologies for communication – radio, television, internet, or the e-book. The book’s presentation of a whole, stable, linear narrative or a reasoned, progressive theory is challenged by the temporal disjunction of these new technologies. Radio, television, and the internet ignore the book convention of presenting information in a linear, progressive fashion. Instead, they are forms of more instant information – directly from the often unedited mouth of the radio announcer, the broadcaster on an information-rich news broadcast, or the instantaneous post of the blogger or tweeter.
McLuhan’s claim that “the new [technology] turns its predecessor into an art form” also makes sense in this challenge of new technologies on the form of the book. The response of the book is that of the artist’s book. One of the defining characteristics of book-art is that it is directly conscious of its medium as a bound and printed book. Drucker reminds us that, “an artist’s book should be a work by an artist self-conscious about book form, rather than merely a highly artistic book.”14 William Blake’s work, with its awareness of the page as a whole was, for Drucker, a precursor to the artist’s book. If we take Drucker’s definition of the artist’s book, it seems to have emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century with poets like Mallarme and avant-garde artists. Book-arts, in response to the changing media of communication, consider the form of the book as a book.
Since the late 19th century, with the challenge of progressive technologies of the radio, television, film and the e-book, the printed book has followed McLuhan’s two-part formula. First, it has become the content of these new forms of media. The book is the content of radio in book performances on radios and the content of iPods in audio books. It is the content of film in TV show adaptations of books and is the content of cinema in “based on the book” movies. More closely related to its own material form, the book is the direct content of the Google Books project on the internet and is the content of the Kindle or iPad e-book. The e-book is directly mimetic of the printed book in numerous ways: adding notes and highlighting can be done with a keyboard and cursor, the library of books stored on an iPad is the image of a bookshelf displaying eye-catching dust jackets, pages can be turned with a movement of the finger from right to left, and the screen of the Kindle requires light in order to be read. McLuhan reminds us that “A new medium is never an addition to the old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace.”15 Although the e-book most closely resembles the printed book, it is not simply an addition to the old medium. The e-book is a new technology that has changed the form of human interaction with the book, but it also refuses to leave the paper book in peace.
Second, the printed book has also become an art form. This is evidenced by the genre of book-arts of which Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky is an example. Using woodcuts like those in Song Chinese printing, Xu Bing also considers the content of a book. In his Book from the Sky, Xu Bing created and had printed a book of 4,000 un-readable Chinese characters. The characters use the same five brushstrokes as readable Chinese characters, but are not signifiers of any readable content. In a discussion of his work, Xu Bing says, “Book from the Sky looks like a book, but we cannot actually call it a book because it does not have any of the interior content.”16 In his work as a book-artist, Xu Bing is acutely aware of the form of the book and his printed characters that we encounter seem in every way to be a book. But the absence of content makes the viewer acutely aware that his creation is a non-book.
Although the creation of the e-book and the emphasis of the artist’s book point to the challenge of new technologies upon the form of the book as a codex of bound, printed pages, the book continues to stand as a primary medium of communication for many. Not only is the college classroom of academia tied to the printed book, but we as readers continue to have the option to walk into a bookstore and pull a brightly covered book from the shelves of titles competing for attention or to have that all-too-familiar Amazon box dropped on our doorsteps with the logo arrow pointing to the book inside.
1. Mitchell, 131
2. Eisenstein, 187
3. Drucker, Visual Codex
4. McLuhan, 19
5. McLuhan, 20
6. McLuhan, 27
7. McLuhan, 218
8. Eisenstein, 191
9. Eisenstein, 23
10. Eisenstein, 93
11. Eisenstein, 113-114
12. Kittler, Intro 8
13. McLuhan, 13
14. Drucker, 21
15. McLuhan, 232
16. Xu Bing, 60
“book, n. and v.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford
University Press. 4 April 2000 .
Drucker, Johanna. “Conceptualizing the Book: Precedents, Poetics, and Philosophy.” Century of Artist’s Books. 21-44. Print.
Drucker, Johanna. “The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-Space.” History of the Book Seminar at Syracuse University. 2003.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth . Print as an Agent of Social Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Print.
Kittler, Fredrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. critical edition. Corte Madera, CA: Ginko Press, 2003. Print
Mitchell, WJT. Picture Theory. Paperback edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Print.
Xu Bing. “Making of Book from the Sky.” Tianshu: Passages in the Making of a Book. (2009): 51-63. Print.