Return to site

The Shape of the Book

· Alberto Manguel,Shape of Books,Halifax,Fine Book Collecting,History of Reading

I had this week’s musing topic all picked out a couple of days ago. That all changed this morning. I was sitting up in bed, had read from my current work of fiction, picked up the next book and started to read the chapter called “The Shape of the Book”. By the bottom of the first page, I determined that this week’s musing would be the first part of this chapter verbatim. I love the physical book, which is why the first musings that I ever wrote were “Books and the Five Senses”. I hope that you find it as enthralling as I did.

The musing shunted aside will follow shortly – it is focused on a recently acquired private press book, which almost by definition is a finely produced physical object.

The author of the featured book, Alberto Manguel, is a highly respected author. He was born in Buenos Aires, lived in Italy, France, England, and Tahiti, and after living in Canada for three years he became a Canadian citizen in 1985.

A History of Reading; Alberto Manguel; Alfred A. Knopf Canada, Toronto, 1996.

Chapter “The Shape of the Book”:
My hands, choosing a book to take to bed or to the reading desk, for the train or for a gift, consider the form as much as the content. Depending on the occasion, depending on the place where I’ve chosen to read, I prefer something small cosy or ample and substantial. Books declare themselves through their titles, their authors, their places in a catalogue or on a bookshelf, the illustrations on their jackets; books also declare themselves through their size. At different times and in different places I have come to expect certain books to look a certain way, and, as in all fashions, these changing features fix a precise quality onto a book’s definition. I judge a book by its cover; I judge a book by its shape.

From the very beginning, readers demanded books in formats adapted to their intended use.
The early Mesopotamian tablets were usually square but sometimes oblong pads of clay, approximately 3 inches across, and could be held comfortably in the hand. A book consisted of several such tablets, kept perhaps in a leather pouch or box, so that a reader could pick up tablet after tablet in a predetermined order. It is possible that the Mesopotamians also had books bound in much the same way as our volumes: neo-Hittite funerary stone monuments depict some objects resembling codexes – perhaps a series of tablets bound together inside a cover – but no such book has come down to us.

Not all Mesopotamian books were meant to be held in the hand. There exist texts written on much larger services, such as the Middle Assyrian Code of Laws, found in Ashur and dating from the twelfth century BC, which measures 67 square feet and carries its text in columns on both sides. Obviously, this “book” was not meant to be handled, but to be erected and consulted as a work of reference. In this case, size must also have carried a hierarchic significance; a small tablet might suggest a private transaction; a book of laws in such a large format surely added, in the eyes of the Mesopotamian reader, to the authority of the laws themselves.

Of course, whatever a reader might have desired, the format of a book was limited. Clay was convenient for manufacturing tablets, and papyrus (the dried and split stems of a reed-like plant) could be made into manageable scrolls; both were readily portable. But neither was suitable for the form of book that superseded tablet and scroll; the codex, or sheaf of bound pages. A codex of clay tablets would have been heavy and cumbersome, and although there were codexes made of papyrus pages, papyrus was too brittle to be folded into booklets. Parchment, on the other hand, or vellum (both made from the skins of animals, through different procedures), could be cut up or folded into all sorts of different sizes. According to Pliny the Elder, King Ptolemy of Egypt. Wishing to keep the production of papyrus a national secret in order to favour his own Library of Alexandria, forbade its export, thereby forcing his rival, Eumenes, ruler of Pergamum, to find a new material for the books in his library. If Pliny is to be believed, King Ptolemy’s edict led to the invention of parchment in Pergamum in the second century BC, although the earliest parchment booklets known to us today date from a century earlier. These materials were not used exclusively for one kind of book: there were scrolls made out of parchment and, as we have said, codexes made out of papyrus; but these were rare and impractical. By the fourth century, and until the appearance of paper in Italy eight centuries later, parchment was the preferred material throughout Europe for the making of books. Not only was it sturdier and smoother than papyrus, it was also cheaper, since a reader who demanded books written on papyrus (notwithstanding King Ptolemy’s edict) would have had to import the material from Egypt at considerable cost.

The parchment codex quickly became the common form of books for officials and priests, travellers and students – in fact for all those who needed to transport their reading material from one place to another, and to consult any section of the text with ease. Furthermore, both sides of the leaf could hold text, and the four margins of a codex page made it easier to include glosses and commentaries, allowing the reader a hand in the story – a participation that was far more difficult when reading from a scroll. The organization of the texts themselves, which had previously been divided according to the capacity of a scroll (in the case of Homer’s Iliad, for instance, the division of the poem into twenty-four books probably resulted from the fact that it normally occupied twenty-four scrolls), was changed. The text could now be organized according to the contents, in books or chapters, or could become itself a component when several shorter works were conveniently collected under a single handy cover. The unwieldy scroll possessed a limited surface – a disadvantage we are keenly aware of today, having returned to this ancient book-form on our computer screens, which reveal only a portion of text at a time as we “scroll” upwards or downwards. The codex, on the other hand, allowed the reader to flip almost instantly to other pages, and thereby retain a sense of the whole – a sense compounded by the fact that the entire text was usually held in the reader’s hands throughout the reading. The codex had other extraordinary merits: originally intended to be transported with ease, and therefore necessarily small, it grew in both size and number of pages, becoming, if not limitless, at least much vaster than any previous book. The first-century poet Martial wondered at the magical powers of an object small enough to fit in the hand and yet contains an infinity of marvels:

Homer on parchment pages!

The Iliad and all the adventures

Of Ulysses, foe of Priam’s kingdom!

All locked within a piece of skin

Folded into several little sheets!

The codex’s advantages prevailed; by AD 400, the classical scroll had been all but abandoned and most books were being produced as gathered leaves in a rectangular format. Folded once, the parchment became a folio; folded twice, a quarto; folded once again, an octavo. By the sixteenth century, the formats of the folded sheets had become official: in France, in 1527, Francois I decreed standard paper sizes throughout his kingdom; anyone breaking this rule was thrown into prison.

Of all the shapes that books have acquired through the ages, the most popular have been those that allowed the book to be held comfortably in the reader’s hand.

All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!