Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Reading :: The Evolution of the Book

The Evolution of the Book
By Frederick G. Kilgour

I happened to pick up this book at a used bookstore in Austin. Opening the cover, I saw the name of the previous author written neatly on the front page: Maxine Hairston.

Of course I had to pick it up. After all, it was just a dollar.

It might have been the best dollar I've spent.

The book is as solid as you might expect from a book published at Oxford. Kilgour, a professor of library and information science, has undertaken a complete history not just of the book but of writing, defining "book" broadly as "a storehouse of human knowledge intended for dissemination in the form of an artifact that is portable—or at least transportable—and that contains arrangements of signs that convey information" (p.3). He identifies four transformations of the book over the last 5000 years:

  • the clay tablet (2500 BC-AD 100)
  • the papyrus roll (2000 BC-AD 700)
  • the codex (AD 100)
  • the electronic book ("currently in the process of innovation"—Kilgour published in 1998) (p.4). 
Along with these transformations, Kilgour identifies "three major transformations in method and power application in reproducing the codex":
  • "machine printing from cast type, powered by human muscle (1455-1814)"
  • "nonhuman power driving both presses and typecasting machines (1814-1970)"
  • "computer-driven photocomposition combined with offset printing (1970- )" (p.4)
Kilgour describes a "historical pattern of the book, in which long periods of stability in format alternate with periods of radical change" (p.4). For each of the seven punctuation of equilibria (clay tablet, papyrus roll, codex, printing, steam power, offset printing, and electronic book), he says, "five concurrent elements were necessary: (1) societal need for information; (2) technological knowledge and experience; (3) organizational experience and capability; (4) the capability of integrating a new form into existing information systems; and (5) economic viability" (pp.5-6). In the subsequent chapters, Kilgour examines each of these punctuations in terms of the five elements, providing an unusually comprehensive examination of the different conditions around each punctuation. For instance, he doesn't just look at production tools, he looks at the impact of eyeglasses, the development of silent reading, and the impacts of abbeys and the Protestant Revolution. 

Those who have studied the history of writing will find plenty of familiar work here, including Schmandt-Besserat's scholarship on Sumerian writing and Eisenstein's scholarship on the printing press. But readers will also find broader discussions of inventions, social systems, and economics across the eras. I was intrigued by Kilgour's discussion of the electronic book in Chapter 12, in which he argues that an "e-book device" will be successful when it meets certain conditions—conditions that sound quite similar to the Kindle!

Before closing, let me go on a little side journey regarding annotation. It turns out that Maxine Hairston annotated her books quite closely. Here's one example from the book. Hairston's annotations are written directly on the page, in pencil; mine are in sticky notes in the margins (a habit I picked up from reading books out of the university library).

Hairston's strokes are bold and her underlining is perfectly straight—she probably used a ruler. And she annotated a lot, not just underlining but also summarizing points with terse phrases in the margins. I found it a bit distracting, and had to resist annotating things just because she had annotated them. But it was also useful to see how a master academic annotated her books.

I can't loan everyone my marked-up version of The Evolution of the Book. But I can recommend that everyone buy and read their own copy. It's a well-written, intriguing text full of information and analysis. Pick it up.

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