The Book Is Dead! Long Live the Book!

by Barbara Kamienski

Published at 2017-01-26

A Review of The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston



Life in the Digital Lane

It doesn't really matter where you go today, whether you're riding the subway, sitting in a coffee shop, or crossing the street, it seems that almost everyone's eyes are riveted to the screen of some device or another. Texts, emails, games, movies, TV shows ... and ebooks. And while Keith Houston calls the book (and here he's referring to the physical object) "the most powerful object of our time," he does concede in his introduction, "After more than a thousand years as the world's most important form of written record, the book as we know it faces an unknown future."

That may be, but its past is utterly engrossing. And now, with the publication of The Book, those of us who take delight in the tactile pleasures of books – "the heft and smell, the swish of a turned page and the satisfying thump of the cover," as Bill Marvel of the Dallas Morning News puts it – can brush aside thoughts of that unknown future long enough to plunge into another great read.



A Far-Reaching Narrative

The subject is enormous, and over the course of 330 pages, Houston takes us on a comprehensive but always engaging tour of its ups, downs, and sidesteps, pausing here and there to give us the brushstrokes of world history for context. We meet papyrus, parchment, paper, silk, and the Foudrinier machine; woodblock type, moveable type, the Stanhope press, and the Paige Compositor; the double-cylinder press, Linotype, Monotype, lithography, copperplate engraving, etching, photolithography, and chromolithography – to name just a few. Detailed descriptions are augmented by copious illustrations, themselves examples of the innovations the author is explaining.


An Intriguing Cast of Characters

The pages of The Book are populated by a mixed bag of characters: people whose curiosity and inventiveness, hopes and fears, triumphs and shortcomings bring to life the relentless tide of innovation. Deadly intrigue at the imperial court of Emperor Zhang surrounded the eunuch Cai Lun, who is credited (falsely, as it turns out) with inventing paper around 100 CE. Johannes Gutenberg, who is credited with the invention of moveable type (again, falsely, as it turns out), was an entrepreneur whose biggest gamble, the forty-two-line Bible, bankrupted him. Mark Twain invested heavily in the Paige Compositor and almost went bankrupt over it; his comments on what he felt like doing to James Paige can’t be printed (or digital equivalent) here, but they're in The Book.



Hang on a Sec – I’ll be Right Back

Houston's grand narrative is held together by the author's evident delight in his subject matter, which he lays out for the reader like an enthusiastic museum guide so thoroughly conversant in his topic that he can hold the thread of the narrative, leap away to digress, and return to the matter at hand without losing the reader's attention.



The Devilish Delights Are in the Details

Like Houston’s previous book (Shady Characters), The Book is enlivened by myriad obscure details that the author has ferreted out about the processes involved and the conditions under which the people involved in them lived and worked. 


You'll never again look at an illuminated manuscript, for instance, without recalling Houston's vivid descriptions of "the parchment industry's tradition of stomach-churning raw materials and noxious manufacturing processes" or the abysmal working conditions of anonymous medieval monks in Europe's drafty, silent scriptoria, bemoaning their lot in the margins: "Now I've written the whole thing: for Christ's sake give me a drink." (In one eleventh-century French order, reluctant scribes were denied wine.)*



Lighthearted Tone

Filled with witty asides, this "mischievous tome" (as Erik Spiekermann calls it) bears out the adage that it's not what you say but how you say it. Writing of Audubon's The Birds of America, with its 26-by-40-inch pages, the author notes, "It is tempting to call it the first coffee-table book, if only because it was large enough to physically serve as a coffee table." Of prints made from woodcuts that could not reproduce the level of detail their creators desired, he says, "To borrow a modern term, woodcut was too low-res."



Go Read The Book!

Need I say more?


*So one can't help wondering whether the thirsty monk depicted in this late-thirteenth-century manuscript might not have been a scribe merely helping himself to his just deserts: (