The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time
Keith Houston’s book about books --- their purpose, their history, their construction --- is an in-depth look at how these precious artifacts came to be, and an illustrative artwork in its own right.
Created with a hard cardboard cover and classic red spine band, THE BOOK’s various parts are noted from front to back; such designations as “dingbat” and “formatter head” remind us that this is a lesson. But THE BOOK is as much entertainment as elucidation. It starts with the basic, first real (because portable as well as readable) example --- hieroglyphs on papyrus. Papyrus is a curious plant that, cut in thin segments, lined up and soaked (preferably in Nile water), produces a flat pliable surface that can be written on. Though the Chinese are sure that they also invented both paper and writing, they were far away from the European and Mediterranean peoples, who created what we in the West recognize as language and letters papyrus, on animal skins (parchment) and eventually on linen rags (paper).
"Houston...is so cozily at home with his subject matter that you will find yourself learning more about the arcane workings of linotype and lithography than you ever thought possible..."
Houston humorously notes that one major barrier to the production of paper was the chronic shortage of rags due to such annoyances as the American Revolution; offers an engaging depiction of medieval monks toiling over scriptural composition with perhaps a bit of less-than-spiritual grumbling; informs us that the Gutenberg Bible was preceded by the Gutenberg schoolbook, Ars Grammatica; includes a brief bio of one of our best recognized illustrators, John James Audubon, who turned to bird sketching for a living after a stint in debtor’s prison; and throws in a macabre account of corpse snatcher William Burke, whose skin was posthumously turned into “an anonymous little book.”
Mass production of books as we have come to know and love them, Houston states, was not actually possible until the 20th century, not merely because of advances in technology but also because standards had to be set by the government for paper sizes.
Houston, who previously authored SHADY CHARACTERS, a treatise on punctuation, is so cozily at home with his subject matter that you will find yourself learning more about the arcane workings of linotype and lithography than you ever thought possible, and enjoying an occasional giggle and more than one “aha” moment as you go. But that’s just the intellectual experience. The visceral experience of THE BOOK, of all real books --- holding, hefting, seeing, even smelling --- offers an expanded layer of understanding and connection.
In Houston’s introduction, he skates agilely over the growing encroachment of e-publishing on the once-presumed primacy of real books --- and lets it go at that. As he says, this is a book about “the bookness” of real books. As such, it succeeds at every level.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on August 26, 2016