|The Story of Books
by Gertrude Burford Rawlings
New York D.Appleton and Company 1901
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The book family is a very old and a very noble one, and has rendered great service to mankind, although,
as with other great houses, all its members are not of equal worth and distinction. But since books are so
common nowadays as to be taken quite as matters of course, probably few people give any thought to
the long chain of events which, reaching from the dim past up to our own day, has been necessary for
their evolution. Yet if we look round on our bookshelves, whether we measure their contents by hundreds
or by thousands, and consider how mighty is the power of these inanimate combinations of "ragpaper
with black ink on them," and how all but limitless their field of action, it is but a step further to wonder
what the first books were like.
Given the living, working brain to fashion thoughts and create fancies, to whom did it first occur to write a
book, what language and characters and material did he use, when did he write, and what did he write
about? And although these questions can never be answered, an attempt to follow them up will lead the
inquirer into many fascinating bye-ways of knowledge. It is not, however, the purpose of these pages to
deal at length with the ancient history of the manuscript book, but, after briefly noticing the chief links
which connect the volumes of today with primeval records, to present to the reader a few of the many
points of interest offered by the modern history of the printed book.
The Beginning of Writing.- Books began with writing, and writing began at the time when man first
bethought himself to make records, so that the progenitor of the beautiful handwriting and no less
beautiful print of the civilized world is to be looked for in the rude drawing which primeval man scratched
with a pointed flint on a smooth bone, or on a rock, representing the beast he hunted, or perhaps
himself, or one of his fellows. The exact degree of importance he attached to these drawings we cannot
hope to discover. They may have been cherished from purely aesthetic motives, or they may have served,
at times, a merely utilitarian end and acted, perhaps, as memoranda. However this may be, these early
drawings are the germs from which sprang writing, the parent of books, and liberator of literature, that
great force of which a book is but the vehicle. How these drawings were gradually changed into letters, in
other words, the story of the alphabet has been already told in this series by Mr. Edward Clodd, and
therefore we need not deal further with the subject here.
Writing once learned, and alphabets once formulated, the machinery for making books, with the human
mind as its mainspring, was fairly in motion. "Certainly the art of Writing," says Carlyle, "is the most
miraculous of all things man has devised. . . . With the art of Writing, of which Printing is a simple, an
inevitable and comparatively insignificant corollary, the true reign of miracles for mankind commenced."
That these words only express the feeling of our far away ancestors, a cursory glance into the mythology
of various peoples will prove. For wherever there is a tradition respecting writing, that tradition almost
invariably, if not always, connects the great invention with the gods or with some sacred person. The
Egyptians attributed it to Thoth, the Babylonians and Assyrians to Nebo, the Buddhists to Buddha, the
Greeks to Hermes. The Scandinavians honoured Odin as the first cutter of the mysterious runes, and the
Irish derived their ogham from the sacred Ogma of the Tuatha de Danaan. And it is noteworthy how,
from time immemorial, writing, and the making of books, have been considered high and honourable
accomplishments, and how closely they have ever been connected with the holy functions of priesthood.
Materials for Writing and Books. - The early forms of books were various, and, to modern eyes, more or
less clumsy. Wood or bark was one of the oldest substances used to receive writing. Stone was no doubt
older still, but stone inscriptions are outside our subject. The early Greeks and Romans employed tablets
of soft metal, and wooden leaves coated with wax, when they had anything to write, impressing the
characters with a stilus. Thus Pausanius relates that he saw the original copy of Hesiod's Works and Days
written on leaden tablets. The wooden leaves, when bound together at one side, foreshadowed the form
of book which is now almost universal, and were called by the Romans caudex, or codex (originally
meaning a tree-stump), in distinction to the volumen, which was always a parchment or papyrus roll. The
oldest manuscript in existence, however, is on papyrus, which, as is well known, was the chief
writing-material of the ancient world. Although the discovery that skins of animals, when properly
prepared, formed a convenient and durable writing-material, was made at a very early date, the papyrus
held its own as the writing-material of literary Egypt, Greece, and Rome, until about the fourth or fifth
century of our era.
The books of Babylonia and Assyria took the form of thick clay tablets of various sizes. The
wedge-shaped characters they bore were made by impressing the wet, soft clay with a triangular pointed
instrument of wood, bone, or metal. The tablet was then baked, and as recent discoveries prove,
rendered exceedingly durable. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether the form of the original
documents of the Old Testament was that of the Babylonian tablets, or of the Egyptian papyrus rolls, or
of rolls of parchment. Perhaps all three were employed by the various Biblical writers at different times.
It is stretching a point, perhaps, to include among writing-materials the tablets of bamboo bark which
bore the earliest Chinese characters, since the inscriptions were carved. The Chinese, however, soon
discarded such primitive uses, and the paper which is so indispensable to-day was invented by them at a
very early date, though it remained unknown to Europe until the Arabs introduced it about the tenth
century, A.D. One of the earliest extant writings on paper is an Arabic "Treatise on the Nourishment of
the Human Body," written in 960 A.D., but it seems to have been printing which really brought paper into
fashion, for paper manuscripts are rare compared with those of parchment and vellum.
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