I discovered the All Souls trilogy by historian and fiction writer Deborah Harkness – I’m currently reading the final book, The Book Of Life (the first being A Discovery Of Witches and the second titled Shadow Of Night) and loving it, unable to stop, eager to discover how it all ends and yet not at all eager for it to end – quite by accident, which is usually the way I discover books.
I was browsing at Word, a terrific independent book store at 123 Newark Avenue in downtown Jersey City, New Jersey, and which deserves all the support in the world, as being an independent book store in these days of Amazon taking over the world is not only risky, but incredibly brave. BTW, I’ve never been in Word when it wasn’t crowded with bibliophiles. All of you, who love b-o-o-k-s know what I mean. There’s nothing like browsing in a bookstore, is there? Taking your time, picking up books, enjoying the heft and weight of them, feeling and enjoying the überzeist of shared love of the printed word that permeates the atmosphere.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica website, “How soon after the invention of writing men began to make books is uncertain because the books themselves have not survived. The oldest surviving examples of writing are on clay or stone. The more fragile materials used for writing at various times have generally perished. The earliest known books are the clay tablets of Mesopotamia (that part of Asia fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their tributaries, and which we know today as Iraq, Kuwait, northeastern Syria, and part of southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran) and the papyrus (a thin, paper-like material made from the papyrus plant, which still grows along the Nile delta) rolls of Egypt. There are examples of both dating from the early 3rd millennium B.C. The Chinese … were the third people to produce books on an extensive scale. Although few surviving examples antedate the Christian Era, literary and archaeological evidence indicates that the Chinese had writing and probably books at least as early as 1300 B.C. Those primitive books were made of wood or bamboo strips bound together with cords.”
The Greeks and Romans also used papyrus, binding them by using leaves at the type and bottom of the papyrus to form rolls (as seen in movies such as Gladiator and Ben-Hur). It was the Romans who expanded bibliography; they had a healthy book publishing trade which spread into Western Europe and Britain as the empire expanded. All straits of society during this period had access to these books, even the poor, while owning a private library was a mark of distinction among the upper classes.
During the early Christian era, the codex replaced the papyrus roll. By binding the papyrus leaves (the origin of our use of the word “leaf” when referring to book pages) this early book could be opened instantly to the exact text being searched for, eliminating the need to roll the papyrus until the text being searched for was found – not to mention having to reroll it. Also, both sides of the papyrus could be used.
By 2500 B.C. into the middle of the second century, vellum and leather, both made from calfskin, had replaced papyrus – the Dead Sea Scrolls, the first of which were discovered in 1946 in what is the West Bank of the disputed Palestinian territories, and which are the earliest known manuscripts of the Old Testament, along with other biblical era writings, are written on vellum and leather. Then, during the Dark Ages it was the monasteries that kept book writing alive. (A Canticle For Leibowitz, the 1961 Hugo Award winner for science fiction, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., tells the tale of Catholic monks in a post-apocalyptic United States as they strive to preserve the remnants of knowledge against the day that humanity rises from the nuclear ruins to rebuild civilization.)
The books of the 15th century resembled our modern book except that they were not yet printed, although paper, which had come to Europe and Britain from China through the middleman Arab trader, was rapidly replacing vellum and leather. Authors were writing in the language of their people, whose literacy was increasing, and the production and sale of books were boosts to Renaissance economies, which were increasingly reliant on the rise of the middle-class guilds.
And then came Johannes Guttenberg.
Guttenberg, who was originally a blacksmith and goldsmith before he became a printer and publisher, was born about 1398 and died in 1468. He was the first European to use movable type printing (invented in China around 1040 A.D.) and also created oil-based ink. Of course, as most of you know, he also invented the printing press. By figuring out how to combine these individual components into one practical system, Gutenberg enabled the mass production of printed books, which subsequently led to mass communication, a critical turning point in the rise of the civilization in which we live today.
Skip ahead 500 years to the birth of the comics industry in the mid-20th century, so beautifully captured by Michael Chabon’s brilliant and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 novel, The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay – and anyone who claims to be a comics fan and has not read this book must have his or her Merry Marvel Marching Society membership immediately revoked. Think about what the comics industry, if it existed, would like – each story of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, or the X-Men individually created, one of a kind, and probably locked up in the libraries of rich individuals and those of museums and universities dedicated to collecting rare art forms, to be taken out and displayed in occasional exhibitions.
The “man on the street” would perhaps, once in a while, buy a “black-market” version of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, smeared with mimeograph ink or supposedly “hand-copied” by some dubious “artist” who claimed to have seen the original. There would be no fandom to create the first comics convention in New York City in July, 1964 at a union meeting hall on 14th and Broadway, which was attended by 100 people, one case of soda, and George R.R. Martin (A Song Of Fire And Ice, i.e., Game Of Thrones) who was the first ticket purchaser. And there sure wouldn’t be a San Diego Comic-Con.
So the next time you browse Amazon or download a book on to your Kindle or iPad, or read a comic book on the web, stop and think about it. Think about the hundreds of centuries that it took to create that mass-produced copy of The Book Of Life or whatever novel you’re currently reading. Think about the thousands of years it took for you to hold that staple-bound, printing pressed copy Captain America #23 in your hands.
Think about it.
And don’t let real books, or real comics, become as dead as … Well, as dead as that first manor woman to “Fred Flintstone” a message into a tablet of clay.