From barely decipherable scratches on ancient surfaces to the latest bestseller: a history of the book, its numerous ancestors, and its underlying technologies.
Houston, who has written a history of punctuation (Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, 2013), returns with a text that is erudite, playful, and illuminating. His massive research informs his discussion—research he has absorbed so well that it seems to flow effortlessly from his pen. Accompanied by many useful illustrations, the text approaches the subject in several ways: the author recounts the history of the writing surfaces and implements humanity has used (from papyrus to paper, reed to keyboard), rehearses the evolution of illustrations in texts (from illuminated manuscripts to our contemporary mass-produced pages), and describes the advance from the scroll to the codex. In each of these major sections, Houston is both witty and intensely detailed, thus appealing both to general readers and to bibliophiles who will wish to know the specifics of making papyrus, of stitching together pages, and of learning how we arrived at today’s paper sizes. Humor appears almost always in the punny, allusive chapter titles—e.g., “Etching a Sketch: Copperplate Printing and the Renaissance.” The author calls out onto his stage numerous principals in his play—names not widely known—and gives them their due, among them Flemish scribe Colard Mansion (the first to use engraved copper plates in the late 15th century) and Martial, a Roman poet, whose first-century (C.E.) volume is the first known use of the codex. Houston also continually refers to the published version of the book he is writing, pointing out its similarities to others, ancient and contemporary. And we sometimes have to “unlearn” things we thought we knew—e.g., Gutenberg’s first book was not the Bible but rather a grammar text.
A splendid, challenging mixture of information and fun.