The Shape of Books
I have Margaret Raitt's hat on here. Margaret, a native of Britain, was one of Cache Valley's great personalities and I loved her. Both furious and frustrated over Utah's politics, she applied for and received United States' citizenship, then immediately plunged into the midst of Cache Valley's Democrat organization, making her voice and her opinions heard in short order.
But she's gone now. She contracted inflammatory breast cancer a short while after gaining citizenship, and a couple of unbelievably painful years later, she died.
Not fair. Not kind. She had fought so hard; she'd had so much life in her.
When I say I loved Margaret, I don't mean we were fast friends, coffee-every-morning chums, riding companions. I mean I admired her as an icon of something. Fearlessness, perhaps. Courage, that I never had, to speak her mind. I loved listening to her stories, jokes, ad libs during announcements in St. John's Church. And she was great with the instant comeback - she could think on her feet. I could never do that. Walking away from an argument, I'd think of a comeback, a terrific comeback. Lying in bed at night I'd come up with some beauties. But on my feet, I'm an embarrassment in any verbal free-for-all. Margaret - she was the star, and I weep for her still.
In Colorado this past Christmas, I sat at the breakfast table with my youngest son, Jonathan, now thirty-four, remembering Margaret. He'd had her as a math tutor in elementary school. After one such session, he'd come into my office and asked me what "dolt" meant. He was ten or eleven then. It had been kindly put, Jon hastened to tell me. After I recovered from laughing, we decided that it must have been a term of endearment. Then I remembered a particular Feast of St. Francis at St. John's to which we were to bring our pets to be blessed and Margaret brought her horse. Oh, she didn't bring it inside , no. The priest went out to the horse trailer, parked at the curb. Margaret believed, you see. She sincerely believed that a blessing would help them both, for the horse was ... well ... a dolt?
Someday I'll put her in a book and keep her alive that way. At least, for me. Characters in a book, of course, are never assured of immortality. Some books - if they don't molder away in the author's files, unpublished - often sink without a trace and their characters with them. But others live on for centuries, sometimes millenia. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, dates from 2,000 years before Christ. And for many scholars, Gilgamesh is just as alive for them as Margaret would be for me, should I put her in some story and let her take it over.
The Smithsonian Book of Books maintains that even the Epic of Gilgamesh might have been lost to us, had it not been incised on clay tablets in cunieform script - the oldest known form of writing. Its usage dates back to the fourth millenium before Christ, that's how old it is. The Epic was found in a 20,000 clay-tablet library during the excavation of Nineveh in the mid-1800s. Eventually, some 400,000 of these tablets would be found in Near East excavations. Rooms had been dedicated to them and they were stored in jars or, more often, heeled up on their edges on shelves, like modern books. And since ninety percent of them dealt with law suits, taxes, property, and other money matters, they offer to us, 4,000 years later, a vivid picture of the ancient Assyrian people.
Considering the durability of these clay tablets, paper for Margaret seems a poor substitute. And so might the later papyrus and parchment scrolls have seemed to ancient scholars and readers with the clay-tablet libraries still fresh in their minds, perhaps even available for study. Greek literature was written on these less-durable scrolls and a huge amount of it will never be found. The Book of Books uses the playwright, Sophocles, as an example. Evidently the man wrote 113 plays, only seven of which have survived. In fact, most of what we have now of Classical literature, a fraction of the whole, has been found in the Egyptian desert where the hot, dry climate tended to preserve the papyrus. Excavation of Egyptian tombs also yielded texts from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. They'd been placed in the sarcophagi as guides to the afterlife; again, saved from destruction by the absence of humidity.
These surviving examples of papyrus scrolls are truly elegant, especially those pertaining to religion or the law, though cheaper and easier to work with than clay tablets. They certainly took up less room in the libraries, lying down in stacks like logs with a tag on the end to identify them. And after a while, as is the way of the world, papyrus scrolls became the standard of elegance and durability for serious texts.
Then the Christians came along - and I wish I could tell Margaret this, she'd get a laugh out of it if she didn't already know it herself. In John Crossan's The Birth of Christianity, I found that the Christians rejected the difficult-to-transport scrolls for the more utilitarian codex, thereby condemning their sacred writings in the eyes of the surrounding Romans, Greeks, and Jews to antiquity's version of account ledgers.
A codex is made up of pieces of parchment or vellum folded and cut to fit in what we would recognize today as a book. It would have been half as expensive as scrolled papyrus that was written on one side only, since Christian scribes wrote on both sides of the codex page. Bound, it could fit in a pocket or hang from a belt and be whipped open at a moment's notice to prove a point or counter an argument.
But what the Christians were doing was committing their sacred texts to a form considered second-rate, something used by merchants and tax collectors, by farmers counting sheep, by millers counting barrels of flour, things like that. What's more, their handwriting lacked the calligraphic elegance found in both Greek and Jewish religious texts. A practical businessman like St. Paul, however, would have felt entirely at home carrying a codex during his journeys from one Christian church to another during that first century after Jesus' birth. It made good sense. Most likely his codex would have held the four gospels, and Crossan suggests this fact as a reason for Paul and his missionaries to prefer the form. The four gospels could fit perfectly in one unit and pages could be flipped back and forth as they read out parts of each.
There were most likely many other reasons for the Christian's use of the codex, as Crossan points out. The Christians, for instance, were notoriously anti-establishment and would have enjoyed the contrast of their workaday codices to the overblown elegance of the religious scrolls used in the synagogues and Greek temples. They were also perennially strapped for cash, no doubt about that. Finally, they counted many people of business among their number who were well acquainted with the codex form and to whom the utiliarian writing used in them would have come naturally to hand.
So books as we know them were popularized by these oddball people that the Romans tried so unsuccessfully to wipe out. I can even hear these disapproving ancients muttering together over the Christian texts. "Look at this collection of hen-scratchings! And they call this stuff their spiritual guide? What blasphemy!"
Little did the ruling Romans know that in the fourth century after the birth of Jesus the Christians would convince the emperor, Constantine, to let them grow and prosper and even to have himself converted to Christianity on his death bed, thus slipping these shopkeepers, along with their dull, mundane codices, almost seamlessly into the power structure of the Mediterranean.
What comes around, goes around, Margaret, doesn't it?. Soon the handwritten and illuminated book-like codices themselves became the standard of elegance and durability. We find examples of these masterpieces in museums throughout the world. Portable art, as one scholar describes them. And all of them centuries upon centuries old.
Then - alas for the calligraphers and the illuminators - along came the printing presses.
A horsewoman herself, Margaret introduced me to Dick Francis, that retired steeple chase jockey and excellent writer of mysteries set in the world of horses. I number his books among the few that I buy in hardback today, first editions all. Beautifully done, these books. Outstanding art on the dust jackets. The printing presses have come a long way since their fourteenth century beginnings. The authors in England before Shakespeare didn't think much of them. Shakespeare himself disdained them. He has one of his characters in Henry IV rail against even the making of paper. Indeed, except for pirated and error-ridden copies, his plays were never printed during his lifetime.
And no wonder. The printing press in England was used at that time for commercial stuff mostly - broadsides, sensational pamphlets, pirated books and plays, anything that would sell well and turn a good profit for the print shop. Sloppy and riddled with errors, print jammed together or spread out with great gouts of white space to make things fit, no wonder they were considered anathema to the very concept of Art.
Islam also rejected printing, most especially of the Koran. The printing press just didn't seem appropriate for the word of God. Even after Gutenberg made such tremendous strides in the quality of printing with his invention of movable type and the adjustable hand-mold, the feeling persisted that printed books would never measure up to the calligrapher's art. The Medici outlawed printing presses in Florence altogether, fearing they would corrupt the Vatican library.
But over the years the printing presses improved and became respectable. Bindings became more and more elaborate; people with means collected large libraries, delighting in soft leather covers tooled with gold and stuck here and there with gems. Excellence settled down in these books, became comfortable. Then in the mid-1930s, the paperback burst on the scene and dedicated readers, those lovers of the smell and feel of good books with fine leather bindings - they had something new to horrify them.
Alberto Manguel describes this revolution in his History of Reading. The English publisher, Allen Lane, conceived the idea of an inexpensive paperback small enough to fit in a pocket, and laid the idea before his partners and the senior editors at The Bodley Head. "They would publish a series of brightly coloured paperback reprints of the best authors," Manguel recounts. "They would not merely appeal to the common reader; they would tempt everyone who could read, highbrows and lowbrows alike. They would sell books not only in bookstores and bookstalls, but also at tea-shops, stationers and tobacconists."
"The project," Manguel concludes, "met with contempt."
Never mind, Lane finally prevailed, Penquin Books was born, and one of the first works reprinted in paperback was Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The young people of the new generation assured the paperback's success. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, they bought them in droves. I was among them. When I was fourteen years old, I could buy an Agatha Christie mystery in the candy store down the street from my house for twenty-five cents.
Though the paperback increased in popularity as the years went on - for instance, today's consumer expenditures in the paperback trade exceed $2 billion - authors felt they'd become legitimate writers of literature only if their book first came out in hardback. I felt pretty good myself when I held a hardback copy of The Uncle in my hands. I had arrived, albeit in a smallish area. The scifi writers, the writers of cheap thrillers and hardboiled detective mysteries, writers of throwaway yarns - they could be satisfied with coming out first in paperback. Then the book stores started filling up with large format, prestigious paperbacks that were as expensive as hardbacks used to be and the prices of hardbacks rose out of sight. New writers were urged to welcome initial paperback publication because readers were more likely to pay five to eight dollars for a paperback of an unknown author than to take a chance on them at twenty-five to thirty dollars a crack.
Soon The Quality Paperback Book Club joined Book of the Month, and now I collect paperbacks, all kinds of paperbacks, and hardbacks - especially of fiction - I buy only occasionally. I find hardbacks difficult to hold, the corners feel sharp, and their size make them the very devil to read in bed.
So for me, the smaller and lighter the better. Lovely companions, all of them, easy to prop up on my stomach in the easy chair or on the bed while lying on my side. I feel free to take them to the beach or camping or on a visit to the grandchildren. They don't take up much room, and it won't hurt if the baby or the family dog destroys the front cover.
Wait, wait: We're not through yet. Dedicated readers and lovers of beautiful books, paperback or hardback, were hit not long ago with something called electronic books. Books online. Downloadable books. And once they're downloaded, they have to be unzipped. Unzipped? Downloadable ? A dear friend found that she can read one of my books only on the computer screen. "But I hate reading at the computer!" she cried. Another friend spent four hours trying to download Better if a Millstone, finally got it, then couldn't figure out how to unzip so she could read it. Four of us were huddled in the pews a few Sundays ago, discussing how to correct this miserable situation. Heaven help me if it had happened to Margaret, I can only guess what she'd have to say! Ah, but would she have said it to me? Or to the others? That was the exciting, even faintly hazardous thing about Margaret. One could never know what side of an argument she would come down on.
There are hand-held eReaders out there for those who'd rather not sit up at a computer to read. I'd rather not read fiction sitting at a computer either. These gadgets cost a bit, but already are seventy-five dollars cheaper than when I bought mine six months ago. And their price now ($199) will continue to drop, just as the price of hand-held calculators did. There are classics to download into these eReaders as well as fiction and nonfiction. A download takes an average of five or six minutes with no unzipping, and many of the classics are free. The texts are called RocketEditions and can be found at Powells.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and other sites. In case you haven't seen these little eReaders, I'll describe them. They're the size and shape of a paperback and, as of now, the ones beefed up with extra memory can hold 200 books. The text is searchable if a reader wants to go back to check on some term, just as on a desk top PC, and there are note-taking and bookmark functions as well as a dictionary. I find my own eReader smooth and comfortable to hold and I can manipulate it with one hand - no pages to turn. This last is an important consideration, by the way, when under the quilt in a cold bedroom.
Here she is with me - Margaret Raitt. If I put her in an electronic book, would she be glad or insulted or horrified, I wonder? I'd hope she'd be chuffed a bit to be part of a new technology, as the Christians were of their codices. As Gutenberg was of his excellently printed Bibles, displayed under an awning at the great Frankfurt Fair of 1455. Margaret's worth a good-sized book, it's true. There were times when she was alive and showing her mettle - after I'd hear her recite a poem in Cockney, or describe a particularly loathesome horse of hers, or storm out of a contentious meeting and leave the walls reverberating by the door she'd slammed behind her; after I'd heard her describe an aunt's screaming reaction upon her first taste of green olives ("Who pissed in the peas?!) - after these things, I felt Margaret was worth more than a book, that she was worth, in fact, a major motion picture.
I've been wondering about this lately: If I had been a reader back in the first century after Christ, would I have welcomed the new codex style of publication. Or would I have been happy with the products of the earliest printing presses in fourteenth century England? Would I, as a reader, have welcomed electronic books if I didn't have two published that way myself? The book culture has shifted down again, and online books have taken the place on the bottom only until recently reserved for the paperback. Most online, electronic books are cheaper than the paperbacks we can buy at Amazon.com, so the situations seems to match. But I noticed lately that St. Martin's Press and Random House, publishing houses of that caliber, writers like Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark, are releasing their new books in both hardback and in the electronic RocketEditions. Other books are being input by volunteers and paid operators for the purpose of offering already published work online. In short, more and more titles are becoming available, not all by unknown or even mid-list authors, and reading habits will change as availablility changes.
I still like books. I like the feel and the smell of them. I'm always glad if I have a reference work on my shelves that I can pull down and carry off to search comfortably at the desk or with my feet on a footstool, rather than having to fire up the computer and do a search. On the other hand, for up-to-date material, nothing I have on the shelves can compete with what I can find on the web.
All of this I'd discuss with Margaret, and ... well ... she might have enjoyed it all. If she didn't, she'd soon let me know. Then again, she might have seen how fascinated I was with all this stuff and taken pity on me, for there was this about Margaret : She was also kind. And she was gracious.
All good wishes for the new year
Joan Katherine Shaw
January 3, 2000
Interested readers might like to get hold of A History of Reading, Manguel; The Smithsonian Book of Books, Olmert; The Book on the Book Shelf, Petroski; The Birth of Christianity, Crossan. Statistics on reading can be found at the site of The American Book Sellers Association, http://www.bookweb.org.
Link to buy:
A History of Reading
The Smithsonian Book of Books
The Book on the Book Shelf
The Birth of Christianity
Link to buy other books about the history of books and reading:
tough but elegant roses
Return to the garden
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All contents copyright (c) starting 2000-2009 by Joan K. Shaw. All rights reserved.