Revert to type
Scots author Keith Houston tells Russell Leadbetter about the history – and future – of the book
IN the end, the rectangular shape of books all comes down to the fact that cows, goats and sheep are rectangular too. It may seem obvious when you think about the centuries-old history of books, of book-making and paper-making (and parchment, hence the animal reference) but, if it’s not obvious, then Keith Houston’s latest work cannot be recommended too highly.
It’s called The Book, and a splendidly comprehensive and tactile object it is, too. It’s not just that it’s printed on creamy, Taiwanese-made, acid-free, PH-neutral paper, is set in an elegant font and has numerous fine illustrations, or that its covers are machine-made from paper glued over heavy cardboard.
It’s also that the different elements that make up a book are all introduced by name when they first occur: obvious things like ‘author’s name’ and ‘extract’, of course, but slightly more enigmatic presences, as well: frontmatter heads, and binding tape, and ad cards (the latter being the page given over to the author’s previous works). You can learn a lot from this book. “These [descriptive] headings almost didn’t make it into the finished edition,” Fife-born Houston concedes. “I think there was a misunderstanding between the designer and the compositor. I think the compositor thought that they were simply explanatory. ‘No, no’, he was told. ‘They have to go in, they have to go in’.”
Houston, who works in medical visualisation software in London, observes in the book that there have been many, many books on bookmaking and book history. What made him decide that another one was needed? “It came from the first book I wrote [Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks]. I ended up going back to the fourth century BC, following not just punctuation but also writing.
“When I was talking to my agent about what we might want to do next, this [new book] just kind of came out of it. I guess it’s a fairly boring and procedural thing to have to do but you look at what’s out there already. Is there a gap? In this case there was. There are lots of great books about how books are made but most of them are for an academic audience ... the whole idea [about this book] is that it should be readable, at least, for a lay audience and, hopefully, occasionally entertaining.”
The story begins with the invention of the paper-like material papyrus (it is “every bit as Egyptian as the pyramids or mummies that have since eclipsed it – and it was, in its day, considerably more important than either.”). It moves on to parchment, the invention of which is customarily ascribed to King Eumenes II of Pergamon, ruler of a Greek city-state in what today is northwestern Turkey.
The library he founded had some 200,000 volumes at its peak, but parchment’s wildfire-like progress across the rest of the world actually started in Rome, courtesy of Crates, the library’s chief scholar, who visited Rome as part of a delegation headed by Eumenes’s brother, Attalus. The habit of writing on leather, however, predates Eumenes II: Egyptian texts dated to between 2550 BCE and 2450 BCE refer to the use of leather as a writing surface. A considerably later document mentions the animals whose hides were turned into parchment: not just cattle, sheep, donkeys and pigs but also lions, leopards, hippos and hyenas.
And so, down the centuries, we witness the rise of the papermakers, the development of text, the history of bookmaking. The index gives a flavour of the mesmerisingly wide-ranging nature of these intertwining strands: the bubonic plague, Dante Alighieri, Albrecht Dürer, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, William Burke - and even, at one point, Samuel Clemens.
For his research Houston, 38, consulted archives and such experts as Edinburgh-based Chrissie Heughan, a noted exponent of hand-cast paper. He also spent much time at the city’s National Library of Scotland, “which effectively has everything that has been published in the UK.”
It’s interesting to be reminded that, though Johannes Gutenberg might be the ‘father of printing’ he was not the inventor of printing; there are 8,500-yearold stone seals, found in Iraq, with which marks were made on clay jars and boxes. Even movable type, in which Gutenberg has come to be seen as a pioneer, was a practice known to the Chinese, some four centuries earlier.
Says Houston: “I had a vague idea that this was the case, but hadn’t realised to what extent this was actually so. I went to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz after completing the book, and they had a Chinese type-case. It was enormous. If you look at a standard, Gutenberg-style movable type-case, it’s maybe the same size of the desk I’m sitting at, stacked one above the other.
“The Chinese type-case ... you stood up in the middle of it and you were faced with these enormous cases on all sides. You were surrounded by a circular booth almost entirely filled with type. Clearly, the number of [Chinese] characters was
An academic paper works well online but a book doesn’t. I don’t think electronic readers will threaten the book