Paper Adaptations


Quite honestly, sometimes I’m not sure how I feel about books. Paper books, I mean, like the ones currently clogging my bedside table and piled beside my keyboard. I catch myself sighing whenever I have to reach for the enumerated bulk of the Chicago Manual of Style, or as I hunt through my bookshelves for some half-remembered bit of information. We’ve spent 50 years freeing information from the prison of the paper book, making it ubiquitous, searchable and
self-replicating, and so it is easy to wonder: what are physical books good for?

There are the obvious things. Readers of printed books revel in a visual and tactile experience that ebooks can’t match: paper books possess memories of their own, falling open at the page where last the reader lingered, and come alive in scribbled marginal notes and passages marked in fluorescent pen. Authors can be happy that book piracy is significantly lower when dealing with paper than with binary bits, and librarians know that the paper book is a superb archival medium, capable of surviving for centuries and readily repaired, rebound or scanned for digital transmission.

Then there are the weirdly artificial drawbacks with which ebooks encumber themselves: the encrypted ‘walled gardens’ of Amazon, Kobo and Google Play, for instance, have no counterpart in the real world. Your library of Google ebooks may not be accessible on your Kindle, but your hands and eyes are guaranteed to be compatible with paper books bought from any bookshop you care to name.

But none of this is news. Anyone with half an eye on the publishing industry will have heard the book-versus-ebook debate many times over. They will have seen sales figures spun one way or the other and they will have formed their own opinions as to the relative merits of physical books and their electronic cousins. No; to my mind, what sets the paper book apart is that it is not a product of the forced march of what we call innovation but rather one of organic evolution. Almost everything that makes a book look, feel, read, and even smell the way it does is a survival trait honed to a fine point by two millennia of human history.

Attic Red-Figure Cup Fragment. (Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.)
Attic Red-Figure Cup Fragment, c. 470–450 BCE. (Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.)

Until the first century or thereabouts, books in the West were made from papyrus sheets pasted together to form scrolls many metres long on which authors and copyists wrote in newspaper-style columns. Scrolls were easy to make and to modify (it was a simple matter to paste in new sheets or to trim off old ones), but they were also fragile and unwieldy. Rolled-up scrolls required special shelves or cases for storage and protection, while in use they gradually degraded, worn away along their exposed bottom edges by the reader’s clothing. And reading a scroll was a chore in itself: the reader had to carefully reel it from one hand into the other – to scroll through it, if you like. To free the reader’s hands for note-taking or wine-drinking, the ingenious Romans wound their scrolls around wooden spindles and read them at desks equipped with pegs behind which the spindles could be wedged.

Of course, we don’t interact with books only when sitting comfortably at a desk, and neither did the Romans. When a Roman-about-town needed to write something down, they reached for a portable wooden writing tablet, or polyptych, covered in beeswax to receive the impression of a sharp stylus. The most common twofold writing tablets, or diptychs, comprised a pair of wooden slabs hinged together with leather thongs; held vertically in the usual fashion, to a modern eye they resemble nothing so much as a laptop computer.

Grave Relief of an Enthroned Woman with an Attendant. (Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.)
Grave Relief of an Enthroned Woman with an Attendant, c. 100 BCE. (Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.)

Neither system was perfect. Scrolls were flimsy and bulky at the same time, and tablets were either too small for extended writing or too heavy to be portable. In hindsight, the solution was obvious: chop a scroll into equally-sized pages, stack them on top of one another and crease them along the gutter between adjacent columns. Pierce a few holes along the spine, sandwich the pages between diptych-inspired wooden tablets and tie everything together with some leather thongs, and there you are. The paged book, or codex, is born.

Perhaps all this was obvious at the time as well, because not a word was written about it until around 85 AD, when the poet Martial encouraged readers of his Epigrams to upgrade from scrolls to books as if moving from VHS to DVD:

You who long for my little books to be with you everywhere and want to have companions for a long journey, buy these ones which parchment confines within small pages: give your scroll-cases to the great authors – one hand can hold me.

Here Martial name-checks the next great advance in bookmaking – the arrival of animal-skin parchment as an alternative to fragile, brittle papyrus. Parchment had been invented by a Greek king named Eumenes some centuries earlier (or, more likely, parchment’s actual inventor had bowed and scraped and wisely dedicated the feat to Eumenes), and it had been waiting for its killer app ever since. The book, whose central spine caused papyrus folios to crack and tear along its length, was it.

Ergonomics and economics drove the development of this new medium. Papyrus books were rectangular to minimise the stress on their spines; parchment books were rectangular because the hides of cows, goats and sheep are essentially rectangular too, and parchment was too expensive to waste. Built-in covers made codices robust and double-sided pages made them space-efficient. The ‘random access’ afforded by riffling through a codex’s pages was a world away from the painstaking rolling and unrolling of a scroll. And page numbers, which are present even in the earliest surviving codex fragments, helped readers find their way in a manner that had never been possible within the scroll’s undifferentiated columns.

With the basic shape of the book settled, writers and readers were free to experiment with what lay within its pages. The table of contents arrived in the third century when Christian writers indexed the Gospels to make them easier to navigate. The word space appeared in the eighth century, when Irish monks unfamiliar with the language of the remote Roman Empire started to prise apart unspaced Latin writing. Punctuation, which had fallen by the wayside since its invention in the third century BC, was revived and revised by St Isidore of Seville and other religious writers seeking to clarify their words beyond reasonable doubt.

In time, the nascent bookmaking industry ushered in its own changes. Bookmakers turned from the ‘Coptic’ binding style of the earliest codices, where pages and covers were sewn to one another with a needle and thread, to ‘double-cord’ binding in which substantial cords or thongs formed vertebrae to which the pages and boards were sewn. (The raised bands that run across the spines of old leather hardbacks are there to accommodate the cords beneath.) Parchment was supplanted, grudgingly and gradually, by paper from mills established in Europe by Moorish invaders who had in turn learned their trade from the Chinese. Even the way the book’s text and images were applied to the page was changed out of all recognition: scribes and artists were elbowed aside by the lead soldiers of Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type and the grotesque woodcut blocks of Albrecht Dürer and his contemporaries.

All this is to say that the book has never stood still. The British Library’s 8th-century, £9m St Cuthbert Gospel may be as recognisably a book as a Gutenberg Bible or a Penguin Classic, but the book itself has been nipped and tucked and reinforced and streamlined on an ongoing basis ever since its invention.

And this, fundamentally, is the ebook’s problem. It isn’t the competing welter of walled-garden ecosystems, or that Kindles work only as long as the battery is charged, or that an ebook can never pick up a patina of use in the same way as its paper counterpart. The real problem is that we imprisoned two thousand years’ worth of bookish culture behind glass rectangles – we shoehorned a very old peg into a very new hole and expected everything to work the same way it always had. To borrow the words of designer Frank Chimero, we haven’t yet discovered the grain of the ebook in the same way that we implicitly understand that of the printed book. The ebook’s time will come, I’m sure of that, but lovers of the old fashioned paper book can rest easy – if history is anything to go by, it will be a long time coming.


The 2016 Shady Char­ac­ters gift guide (sort of)

The Book. Image courtesy of Sam Otis.
Image courtesy of Sam Otis.

Given that I’m still on hiatus, I’m cheating a little for this year’s gift guide. I have just the one suggestion, and you may already have guessed what it is: why not treat yourself or a loved one to a copy of The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Ex­plor­a­tion of the Most Power­ful Ob­ject of Our Time?

If you enjoyed Shady Characters (or indeed this blog) then I’m sure you’ll find The Book to be of interest, but if you haven’t made your mind up then do have a read of this extract published at Longreads: “Hidebound: The Grisly Invention of Papyrus”. And if you need more encouragement, Blackwell’s in the UK are calling The Book one of their books of the year.

That’s all from me for 2016, and quite a year it has been. Thank you for all the comments, emails and tweets, whether about punctuation, books or The Book — it is always a pleasure to chat with you all, and I appreciate every message. See you all in 2017!

The Book. Image courtesy of Sam Otis.
Image courtesy of Sam Otis.
The Book. Image courtesy of Sam Otis.
Image courtesy of Sam Otis.
The Book. Image courtesy of Sam Otis.
Image courtesy of Sam Otis.

The images published here come courtesy of Deane Barker and Sam Otis of Blend Interactive. Deane kindly mentioned The Book in his talk “The Book Itself: Four Thoughts on the Enduring Value of the Printed Book”, delivered at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon as part of the Delight 2016 Conference; Sam (@sam_otis) was the photographer. Thank you both!

The Metallic Ink of Herculaneum


A charred scroll excavated at Herculaneum. (Image courtesy of Emmanuel Brun at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility.)
A charred scroll excavated at Herculaneum. (Image courtesy of Emmanuel Brun at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility.)

In January 2015, scientists at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, announced that they had deciphered handwritten text from a series of papyrus scrolls excavated at the Roman town of Herculaneum by passing X-rays through the scrolls’ carbonized remains. Then, in March this year, another secret was revealed. Those same scrolls were discovered to have been written with distinctive metallic ink, once thought to have been invented many hundreds of years later, and which boasted – or rather, whispered of – roots in ancient spycraft.

Since time immemorial Roman scribes had employed a system of hollow reed pens, homemade ink, and papyrus scrolls purchased according to length. The ink in which they dipped their pens was a mixture of water, gum arabic, and soot, just as it had been for the Egyptians and Greeks before them. Gum came from the acacia trees found in Asia Minor to the East; soot, on the other hand, could be scraped off burnt cooking utensils, ground down from cremated elephant bones, or prepared in a purpose-built furnace, depending on the motivation and the means of its maker. It was a simple recipe, and a flawed one: the distinguishing feature of carbon ink was that it could be washed off papyrus scrolls with nothing more than a moistened finger. (Martial, a Roman poet of the first century CE, wrote of sending out his books still wet so that discerning patrons could erase poems not to their liking.)

Sometime during the first century, however, things began to change. As the ESRF researchers discovered, scribes at Herculaneum were using a quite different kind of ink no later than 79 CE, when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius choked the life out of the town – an ink with metallic elements in its make-up that is opaque to X-rays. The days of carbon-based ink were numbered.

Until now, the received wisdom was that metal-based ink had become popular only during the third or fourth century CE, popularized by Christian scribes who copied and re-copied the Gospels and other important religious works. To make metallic ink, nutlike tree growths called galls were dried, crushed and infused in rainwater, wine, or beer, before being mixed with sulfate of iron or copper. The acidic gall liquor reacted with the metal sulfate as soon as the two were brought together to form an insoluble pigment that fixed itself on the page, and scribes learned to breathe into their ink jars to replace the air with unreactive carbon dioxide before stoppering them. For ancient writers, metallic ink was a quantum leap forward, as permanent on papyrus as it was on the new-fangled parchment becoming popular with scribes as far afield as Gaul and Britannia.

But the irony of metallic ink is that it may well have grown out of a need for subterfuge rather than brazen permanence. In the third century BCE, a Greek engineer named Philo wrote of what he called “sympathetic ink” made from tree galls and copper sulfate, but these familiar ingredients were to be brought together after their message had been written, not before. In Philo’s scheme, a would-be spy or illicit lover wrote on papyrus using a colorless infusion of crushed tree galls; on receipt, their correspondent washed that same papyrus with a solution of copper sulfate to reveal its hidden message.

Work to decipher the Herculaneum scrolls is still ongoing, and we don’t yet know whether their singular metallic ink is a descendant of Philo’s recipe or something else entirely. But whatever we learn, our understanding of ancient writing practices has already been turned on its head. Metallic ink was used centuries earlier than previously thought, long before Christian monks and scribes turned their hands to it, in a Rome where citizens prayed to household shrines and where the wrath of Vulcan, god of the volcano, was still a thing to be feared.


A baby and a pause (and a vote?) for Shady Characters

I am very happy to announce that my wife Leigh and I have just had a baby boy and, as such, I’ll be taking a break from Shady Characters for a while. Think of it as a pilcrow — the end of one paragraph and the start of another!

In the meantime, I thought I’d point you in the direction of an article in the Deseret News in which Chandra Johnson asks rhetorically: “What do Americans lose if bookstores disappear? More than you think”. I chatted to Chandra about the history of the physical book and how it relates to bookshops — after libraries, our other temples to the book. It was a great opportunity to go beyond the historical content of The Book and, I’m not ashamed to say, Chandra gave me some great ideas to pick up on in my subsequent interview with Heleo’s Mandy Godwin. Have a read of both, or either, and feel free to leave a comment below — is the physical bookshop doomed? What lies in its future?*

Secondly, if you happen to be a member of Goodreads, or you wouldn’t mind becoming one, might I interest you in voting for The Book in the History & Biography category of Goodreads’ Choice Awards 2016? The write-in box for other titles appears at the bottom of the page for Goodreads members only.

See you all in the new year!

*
In fact, if you have any suggestions for articles or interesting punctuational links to share, please feel free to email me via the Contact page or leave a comment below↩︎
And, er, if you’d like something to read in the interim, why not buy a copy or two of a certain very bookish book↩︎

Miscellany № 78: catching up

So: time to catch up! Here are a few links to punctuational goings-on from the past couple of months.


First up, pan-European typefoundry Underware recently took some time to dive into the importance of the pointing hand, or manicule (☞). It’s an old mark, hailing back to the days when the readers of manuscripts and early printed books would draw little pointing hands in the margins to call attention to passages of interest. Though the manicule survived in print, it gradually slid from its previously exalted position, yielding the job of linking footnotes and text to the likes of the asterisk (*) and dagger (†). And yet, in common with the ampersand (&) and the pilcrow (¶), the manicule continues to offer discerning type designers a chance to flex their creative muscles. As Underware’s unnamed writer says in “There you go”,

What many people don’t know, because it’s not easy to spot, is that many type designers enjoy refining many details of their fonts. For example by creating manicules which fit to the style of a font family. A special pointing hand allows extravaganza [sic] typographic subtleties in your book, website, identity or whatever you are making.

What do you say? Is it time to bring the beloved but under-appreciated manicule back into the spotlight?


Next, Cameron Hunt McNabb writes about the evolution of the ellipsis (…) for Slate’s excellent Lexicon Valley blog. In particular, McNabb explains the peculiar medieval practice of “subpuncting”, or adding an ellipsis below an incorrectly copied word:

In medieval manuscripts, we find a mark—sometimes called subpuncting or underdotting—that is used to indicate the omission of a word or phrase, usually when that word or phrase has been copied erroneously. This omission mark involves placing a series of dots under the word that is to be omitted.

Subpuncted words, as McNabb says, were usually left in place — the manuscript equivalent of strikethrough, perhaps, a passive-aggressive jab at the inadequacies of the original copyist. Gradually, however, and in an almost exactly parallel with the rise of print at the expense of manuscripts, subpuncting gave way to the omission of words in favour of ellipses. And yet, McNabb wonders, are the two actually related? The academic spheres of medievalists on the one hand and modern literary scholars do not often overlap and so the nature of the link between subpuncting and the ellipsis remains unclear. Needless to say, Cameron’s article is well worth a read in its entirety!


If the full stop is dying, as has been suggested again and again, it’s taking a hell of a long time to shuffle off this mortal coil. For National Punctuation Day, Katy Steinmetz of Time weighed in with some signs that the patient may be recovering:

“Periods are not dead,” says computational linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, who turned to his own trove of 157,305 text messages to analyze how the final period—a period at the end of a thought or sentence—was being used and shared his initial results exclusively with TIME. “They’re actually doing interesting things.”

As Schnoebelen goes on to explain, those interesting things are not surprising: short text messages are more likely to manage without at least one full stop while longer messages require full stops to help the reader break them into manageable chunks. Where they do occur, those periods mean business:

Texts ending in a period, in Schnoebelen’s analysis, had a disproportionate amount of the words told, feels, feel, felt, feelings, date, sad, seems and talk. By contrast, many of the words that tended to show up in texts that did not end with a period were more casual kinds of speech: lol, u, haha, yup, ok, gonna.

Of course, correlation isn’t causation. Schnoebelen’s work suggests that the full stop is often a participant in sentences intended to convey important sentiments, but he stops short of suggesting that the period itself is the thing that lends them their import. As important as punctuation is, in other words, don’t neglect the words themselves.


Finally, a couple of pieces of self-promotion. First, a few weeks ago I had an enjoyable and wide-ranging chat with Mandy Godwin of Heleo, where we talked about the past, present and future of the book, and in which I used the words “which” and “actually” many times over. You can read the transcript at Heleo — if you do, and if you have any comments, feel free to leave a comment below!

Lastly, I’ll be giving a talk at the St Bride Foundation in March next year. Tickets are on sale now.

Thanks for reading!