Re­vert to type

Scots au­thor Keith Hous­ton tells Rus­sell Lead­bet­ter about the his­tory – and fu­ture – of the book

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

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

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