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How does one describe a book? A collection of magical words correctly sieved in sentences to form a paradise of a particular story? Is this is how we describe a book? But then, what do we call stories on kindle, tablet, or mobile screens? Are those books too? What is the correct definition of a book?

Wikipedia says, ‘A book is a medium for recording information in the form of writing or images, typically composed of many pages bound together and protected by a cover. The technical term for this physical arrangement is a codex.’

According to the above definition, a book is a bundle of papers bound together and shielded by a hardcover. If this sentence is correct, what would we call the ancient scripts written on slices of stones? If one really needs to understand what is a book and how it evolved, they need to flip pages of the past and go back to where humans first started writing.

Scholars generally agree that the earliest form of writing appeared almost 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia.

The product that comes first to our mind when we hear a book is a codex, a stack of pages bound together from one end. But this form of codex existed much before Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press and the printing revolution. In Graeco-Roman antiquity, people mostly wrote on papyrus, a product made by the Cyperus papyrus plant. These papyri were not bound like a modern book but were rolled and stored.

The oldest text written on Papyrus belongs to St. Johns, which was found in a trash pit of Oxyrhynus, Egypt. The first paper production was documented in China during the Eastern Han period between 25–220 CE, but much before that, the Egyptians were already using the Papyrus. Yet, the underdeveloped part of the world still relied on sheets of rock to write and store things.

evolution of books

In the medieval era, people liked manuscripts than books, emphasizing that the texts were handwritten. All the material was hand produces such as the parchment (made out of stretched animal skin), inks, cover, illustrations, and the texts themselves. It was the deciding time in the history of books where they first saw evolution. Though the basic style remained the same, many of them were improvised by adding better handwriting and decorations. Where in some regions, fonts and typeface remained rather simple, in rest, they were standardized, even the decorations involved sculptures than simple colors. The basic idea behind it was the owner’s wealth and the kingdom’s riches.

However, till the 16th century, Europeans wrote on thin sheets of wood. But eventually, in Western Europe, the books were popularised with Christianity. The production of books was the domain of the church monasteries. Even the educational centers prefers theology before anything and the very subject matter of books was theology. As handwritten books became an important part of human life, they became a crucial thing for the ruling kingdoms as all their administration and legal matters depended on books. They soon replaced parchment, as the paper was less expensive in bulk.

Inks also play an important role in the evolution of books. They were made by mixing organic colors and animal dyes with either water or wine. But as water doesn’t stick that well, the ink needed to have an oil-based ingredient. Thus, people started using ink made by lamp soot, walnut oil, and turpentine. But what about fonts? Even before people started writing, the alphabets were rather printed in the traditional ink and board method. The pieces consisted of reversed letters cast on alloy stocks. They were designed differently and were handmade, thus were also expensive. Standardization was not possible until mass production. But thanks to Nicholas Jenson for developing the earliest Roman font style, which later became the foundation of thousands of other fonts. He was a French engraver, pioneer, printer, and type designer. He made the final definitive break from blackletter style.

As for the cover of the books, they were generally made of wood. The solid cover shields the thin paper bundle inside from heat and pressure. Sometimes, where wood wasn’t accessible, the cover was made by sticking stacks of paper together. Eventually, everything was replaced by the rope fiber millboard. It was a less expensive option.

The Printing Press

The books saw a drastic change in the 15th century with the introduction of the Printing press. Johannes Gutenberg invented printing with movable types in the 1450s. With this, the books were commercialized and flourishing international book trade starting the Printing Revolution. A printing press is a device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a print medium thereby transferring the ink. Within a few decades, the device moved to over two hundred cities in a dozen European countries.

evolution of books

It is also important to know that Printed books did not replace manuscript books overnight. For at least the next 50 years, they coexisted. When William Caxton brought the printing press to England, the printed texts were sometimes incorrect and would receive negative feedback. Thus, most of the customers relied on handwritten manuscript books.

Though the printing press allowed people to print books, they were still handmade. While the locals relied on manuscripts, printed books remains a luxury to the rich class. Thus the major change came with the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine. Industrial printing began in the first half of the 19th century. After the steam engine, another crucial invention was a rotary cylinder, which replaced the flat surface for paper when being printed. The books finally became available for the masses and no longer remained a luxury for the wealthy.

The ability to produce millions of copies all together made books commercialized and globalized. Now, people had access to them like never before and it also commercialized the writing and the poets of the era whose work reached beyond borders and seas.

Thanks to Digitalisation, we have e-books now which have soared a quite popularity recently. Today, books are no longer written by hand, they are either printed or published on electronic devices. But then again, are these objects really books? Does the feel and smell of the paper add something special to the experience?


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