The book as perfect object

August 7, 2016

The book as we know it is a pretty nearly perfect piece of design, which hasn’t really changed since the codex – a number of sheets attached to each other, inside a protective cover of some kind – replaced the scroll at some point during Roman times. It’s never really been clear whether Brutus’ book, referred to in Act IV of Julius Caesar, and of which he turns down the corner of a page (!) is an anachronism introduced by Shakespeare, rather like the striking clock which features in the same play, or a thing which had actually developed by that time…

So, although handwritten at first, before the invention of printing, and on vellum or parchment before the advent of paper, bound in leather or wood before the invention of cardboard, the object has been a familiar one for getting on for two millennia. It’s obviously much more widespread nowadays, too, and relatively cheaper – somewhere I recall reading that in Chaucer’s time, when a book still had to be hand-written by a scribe, it would cost roughly the same amount as a modest house… were that still the case, I’d be a multi-millionnaire!

When you look more closely, a book is a marvel of versatility. Nowadays, it can contain illustrations or not. It can be cheaply produced for mass circulation, as a paperback, or made more lasting and durable, printed on acid-free paper and in hard covers. It can vary greatly in size, from the smallest paperback to the huge Times Comprehensive Atlas which I value so much. It can be an exciting novel or a dull telephone directory – though why they bother to produce those any more, I cannot fathom.

The way it’s laid out is also logical as well as variable. After the title page, there can be a contents page; at the end there can be an index, although some countries have the – to me – rather curious convention of putting both contents and index at the end of the book. Notes can be included, as foot- or end-notes. And – though less common nowadays – at the very end, other books which might be of interest to a reader can be discreetly advertised.

People have prophesied the disappearance of the printed book for most of my life, initially in fantasies about an electronic future, and more recently with the appearance of e-readers and tablets. And yet recent surveys have show that our friend the printed tome continues to hold its own, even to become more popular, whilst its electronic rival fades – our leading chain of bookshops has discontinued selling the most popular brand of e-reader.

And I can see why. I find my e-reader a frustrating device. I know I’m not a typical user: I have to remind myself of its very existence somewhere among my piles and shelves. But it’s not easy to move around an e-book, to flip from page to page, to keep a thumb in one place while I read another, to look back to the contents page or to the index. Footnotes get shunted all over the place. In the end, as often as not, I just don’t bother. The only real advantage the e-reader has is that I can carry several hundred books around in the physical volume of a single paperback.

When, perhaps in ten years’ time, someone has developed an e-book with pages like a real book has, but that can display the text of any book and all my books, perhaps storing their text and illustrations in memory built into its hard cover, then, perhaps, the printed book may be on its way out. I’m not holding my breath.

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