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  • Leopold Huber

The History of Books and Written Communication

Books and other written mediums were and are one of the most fundamental ways of conveying information and ideas for most of modern human history (the last 5000 years). In this article I will show how the written word was conveyed throughout history and its use and effects in society. 


Beginnings and origins 

The earliest forms of writing were found in Mesopotamia and were dated to around the 3rd millennium BCE. They were clay tablets which were hardened and dried using fire. A calamus, the stem of a reed sharpened to a point, was used to write on the tablets. These tablets primarily contained legal documents, asset lists and stories of heroics and legends. Archaeologists have also discovered early scribal schools where scribes to-be would be taught how to write on their own. Aside from clay, scribes and authors with more wealthy patrons could engrave their writings in rarer materials, such as gold. 

Another form of writing, papyrus was developed in ancient Egypt around 4400 years ago. Papyrus is a paper-like substance made from dried and pressed papyrus reeds, which grew along the Nile. A calamus or sharpened bird feather was used in combination with ink to write messages on the papyrus. Papyrus pages were typically pasted together into scrolls or rolls, which could be up to 40m long when unfurled. Papyrus rolls often contained legal documents and were exported and widely used in both Greek and Roman bureaucracy and society. 


Ancient and Classical era 

In addition to papyrus rolls, Romans (and many other civilizations at the same time) used both wax tablets and parchment. For the former, wooden tablets were covered in wax (mostly beeswax) and a stylus was used to write and erase markings on the material. These tablets were mostly used for calculations, teaching and other everyday purposes, such as shopping lists. For the latter, animal skins would be processed into thin sheets, on which the writer would write with a feather or calamus and ink. And while parchments were more expensive than papyrus, they had better durability and utility and slowly started replacing it.  

Papyrus and parchments also started to be assembled into codices, which were the direct ancestors and had the same design as the modern book (except for the fact that codices did not contain paper). 

In China, the creation of paper was first traced back to 105 CE, during the Han dynasty. First used as padding and wrapping, by the 3rd century CE paper was widely used in writing, and by around 960 CE paper currency was first issued. Due to its higher quality and lower cost than papyrus, paper and its manufacture rapidly spread throughout the world through China’s ancient trade routes. By the early 13th century, paper manufacturing spread from China to most of the Arabian world and the Mediterranean.  


Dark- and Middle Ages 

Between the 2nd and 4th centuries, the codex nearly fully replaced the scroll, as it was easier to carry, and its writing became clearer. 

 And after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, monasteries in eastern Europe became the primary owners, producers, and translators of books and codices. In these compounds, monks would translate and copy ancient texts by hand, which often lead to mistakes and mistranslation in new scripts. And while the monasteries conserved many historic texts, they would often eschew facts or destroy writings due to religion or ideology. And as the church was the primary producer of books, they held much influence over nobility and peasantry alike. 

Other major producers of literature were the universities, which started flourishing in the 12th century due to the revival of major cities in western Europe. The intellectuals in these places preferred to translate scientific books, such as those on science, medicine, mathematics or history, as demand for those rose in the newly developing bourgeoisie and burgher classes. The production of texts made for entertainment also rose and professional booksellers started to appear worldwide. 


Renaissance, Industrial and contemporary era 

Even though the production of books steadily increased throughout the early and late Middle Ages, they were still an expensive luxury that could only be purchased by the upper class. The cost and time of copying, translating or writing a book was extremely high, as such actions could only be performed by hand. 

But in 1440, the first printing press was invented in Strasbourg by Johannes Gutenberg. This machine allowed literature to be printed extremely quickly and with a higher quality than before. Book prices fell drastically, and books were suddenly available to most social classes. This led to increased literacy and allowed for the rapid spread of new ideas and technologies. 

The development of new printing techniques, publishing and copyright rights and the falling price of paper allowed for the development and expansion of the newspapers and recreational scripts for even the poorest of consumers. This led to rising literacy rates worldwide and people became more politically aware of their surroundings. 

Since the rise of the digital era, people have started to read less books or other written media, such as newspapers, whose sales have fallen in the last decades. This, accompanied with the rise of e-books, has provoked many to fear the “death of books.” But these fears are mostly unrealistic, as book sales still soar far above e-books and the print industry is still worth billions of pounds. 





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