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The evolution of books

As I was reading older issues of Atlantic Monthly, I came across this interesting article by Alan Jacobs called “How Books Learn” (July 2012)  http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/how-books-learn/259926/   In his article, Jacobs ruminates about the evolution of books. He perceives of books ranging from ever evolving and maturing oral poems and histories by Homer to those written down by Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and most every author you can think of. Then he turns his thoughts to the formats of books from scrolls and beautifully bound and decorated medieval manuscripts to artists’ books that are all about the form and not the content. Here’s a link to the Five Colleges’ Artists’ Books site http://dcollections.oberlin.edu/cdm/search/collection/artistsbook

Here are some pages from a curious Italian book made of cut images to form an ever changing story or play. The pages  tell different stories depending upon how you adjust the pages. 


Over the next few months we will explore the evolution of the book from scroll to codex, from poetry, plays, speeches, philosophy, and histories to religious commentaries, more philosophy, science, and literature. While the content within the pages ties the work together, the structure of the text, the pages of type, the quires, thread, and boards bind the content to the covers and makes the work portable. In this electronic age, it is the digital bits which represent the ideas of the author that are gathered together and then made available in some format readable through an e-reader, browser, or screen. 

When I think about the evolution of the book, such a provocative and contentious concept, I consider both the text and its structural parts. Words and ideas are combined on a page together with images, all wrapped into a cover or binding. Today the question and practice of studying the evolution of the book centers around two things, the contents and its packaging. Contents, that is what is composed by authors and presented to readers is ever evolving reflecting the reading interests of that generation. The structure, the method of accessing the contents is what is currently evolving from physical pages to digital images. So far, the shift is from tangible to intangible, from physical to digital facsimile. We still read from front to back, for the most part, and rarely jump around unless we follow those distracting hypertext links, curious notes and appendices, illustrations, maps, and whatever else steers us away from the main text.

What’s the next step for the book along this evolutionary ladder? My crystal ball is still cloudy. What do you think?


About mbkcons

I love research, books, reading, and learning new things.


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