A dialogue concerning the rise of the written word and a brief history of the book.
Happy Friday! Thought I’d kick off the weekend with a little nerd porn. Wild times!
The rise of the written word corresponds with the rise of powerful, “intelligent” civilizations that had accumulated wealth and “accelerated communications.” Henri-Jean Martin states in The History and Power of Writing that writing is “a means for dominating space.” We can assume that civilizations adopted written language to categorize, organize and, ultimately, realize concrete goods determining wealth. The best example being that the ultimate symbol of wealth is the banknote, the credit card, the handwritten check.
Now, what happened to the ancient scribes, or, those who solely belonged to the previously dominant mode of communication: the spoken word? After being integrated into these “evolved” civilizations, they and their students began to develop a simpler, more direct system. With the influx of peoples from various cultures and regions each with their own corresponding mode of speech, dialect, mannerisms, etc. into these cities, merchants and city officials needed a system that could communicate with everyone at the same level, but more importantly, with an efficiency conducive to stimulating business, economy, and the rapid transfer of goods to one from another– “easy assimilation” being the motto of the day. In the West this process ends with the alphabet. In the East we have the Japanese simplification of Chinese ideograms.
Along with this we have to remember that the written word cannot stand alone. A banknote is worth nothing without our daily acknowledgement that it means something. It’s value lies in our decision to assign it value, not by mere virtue that since it is written it is so. Our simplified system, though efficient, does not necessarily imply enrichment. Where one Chinese ideogram represents an entire day, or can describe a forest in full bloom, our system requires numerous symbols, on top of which we must add punctuation, connotation, and proper grammar.
But, back to the transition from spoken to written word. The distribution of information via speech had one glaring problem concerning revision as a means of destroying accuracy. Think of it this way: you have seven different people with seven different languages trying to convey the same meaning. It is inevitable that facts and aspects of the story will get distorted, related poorly, more often than not embellished beyond recognition. Case in point: The Iliad. The Iliad and its sequel, The Odyssey, are attributed to Homer but it is common knowledge in academia that he was only the first to have actually written both down in their entirety. The origin of these stories are unknown, save that they began as an oral tradition, more than likely as song. This is evident by its lyrical outline, with repeating stanzas and choruses designed to help the singer commit the lines to memory. Academics have discovered numerous versions of both epics, repeating stanzas and in some cases (I speak particularly of the varied inclusion and exclusion of Patroclus in key scenes) the distortion of basic plot. Now, with the advent of written word, we’ve subjected the flow of spoken word to alphabet (a series of symbols that together create meaning) that is in turn imprisoned onto the clay tablet, carved into stone or wood, inked onto papyrus, typed onto a sheet of bleached paper, and, more recently and totally, digitally typed into a word processor. Where before audiences were held completely enraptured by a story in song–completely ignorant of grammatical error—, writing has rendered the story into something we can analyze by breaking it down, by decomposition. Once The Iliad was written down, you can bet that scholars discovered that there was much that was lacking. Again, Martin puts it best when he writes that “eventually the accumulation of a store of knowledge and observations that now no longer became distorted by being passed from mouth to mouth led to the rise of the critical spirit.” Hence, the numerous editions and translations of both The Iliad and The Odyssey.
While efficiency and accuracy is well and good, we have to realize that the written word has its drawbacks. The written word has almost completely overshadowed the master art of memorization and performance. Where before poets opened their mouths spontaneously to share a poem thought to have come straight from the Gods, now we have only the book to designate merit. Writing is a form of domination. Ancient societies that honored their bards turned from them to written accounts and from there enslaved themselves to that frightening beast: revision. Always, always there will be revisions. Continuity was obliterated and replaced with a fragmented time punctuated by revisions.
There is no better example of this than in the arena of law. Actual power no longer lies in the sovereign’s decrees but lies within the pen of whoever is writing these decrees down. Written word allows a body of people to continually revise their laws, yet, these documents are really only available to a select few bringing me to another important point: that of accessibility. Before people gathered in the main square to hear the bard sing. This was the way information was passed on. With the popularization of writing and the book, individuals now had numerous means of obtaining knowledge all of which weren’t always available to them.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We can see now how the progression from spoken to written word was a logical, efficient, and necessary process that united many different cultures, bringing them into new, thriving cities rampant with thought and word. Let’s talk about the origin of the Book.
There are four main incarnations of the book. From these four incarnations we get thousands of manifestations but for this sophomoric dialogue’s sake, we’ll stick with the four (and I mainly defer to Frederick Kilgour for this fascinating information). First, we have the clay tablet that was inscribed on with a stylus (a metal or fortified wood instrument strong enough to carve into whatever clay was used). Second, we have the papyrus roll popularized in Egypt drawn upon with a pen and ink derived from plant matter. Third, we have the codex which is a fancy name for our modern day book (numerous pages not always bound together but each necessary to make the whole), again used with the pen. Fourth, and finally, we have the electronic codex (see the alien and sterile, Kindle device that allows one to download books and read via computer screen). Those are the four incarnations.
Next, we must take into account the three different ways that these texts were duplicated for distribution. We have the man-powered printing press that utilized metal cast type, nonhuman powered printing presses, and computer-driven composition combined with offset printing. But even before all of these there was the scriptoria.
From the 5th to 12th centuries, the Christian church dominated everything. Everything. Some abbott, Saint Benedict (I think, don’t quote me on that) mandated that each monk had to read for a few hours a day. This lead to the replication of texts. The scriptoria was the part of the church/monastery that was dedicated to the curation and replication of texts. So, before there was print, there were about a dozen monks sitting in a dusty room by candlelight, copying books word for word way too many times for us to comprehend. I mean, imagine that. The church owned every single book written. If you wanted to read a book, you had to visit the church and have someone read it to you or pay a fee to have it copied. Here’s another crazy thing that prompted the duplication of texts: when one “read” it meant that one person was reading aloud to a group of people. Prior to the fourteenth century no one “silent read” or read alone. All of it was out loud, among an audience. About the same time as silent reading was invented, eyeglasses were also born. Of course, all of these changes were ushered in by the upper classes. Nothing said “bling” more than owning your very own copy of a book that you could read all to yourself. It meant, above all things, more than education, wealth.
So, we have the church monopolizing written texts up until the birth of the university, which happened in Italy. The university bought copies of books from the church. It was in the university that the index and table of contents were born. Scholars could borrow from the church and with the aid of index and table of contents rapidly find what they were looking for. The birth and early adolescence of the book was a very sheltered one. The church leaned over everything and everyone. No texts were released to the public without first undergoing the terrible and merciless scrutiny of whatever priest or saint was in charge at the time. Only clergymen and the very rich had access to information. Of course, it got better after Gutenberg invented the printing press and movable type. Before there were only wood-block prints. Entire pages that were drawn and printed onto sheets as a whole. Gutenberg made it possible to print numerous copies at once with the press and movable type. All of a sudden, books were more accessible to the entire population.
The point of my boring little rant being that the invention of the written word and the book came about by the constant and clamorous demand for information. It wasn’t someone’s idea of a good art project. Yes, these days books have become a vehicle for art. The idea of the book has become less rigid, can be manipulated more and with easier abandon. It’ll be interesting to see how technology (computers, internet, etc.) reshapes, reincarnates the book.