Columns > Published on January 5th, 2017

The Book as the Most Powerful Object of Our Time

Are books still relevant? This is the question that has been asked since the dawn of the 21st century, and perhaps even before that. With technology delivering content to be “consumed” rather than engaged with in a thoughtful manner, it’s hard to see a future wherein the book has a resurgence. I wrote about this recently with my article “Google Made Me Stupid. How Do I learn to Read Again?” that was in itself a response to the 2008 Nicholas Carr article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” But to think that we’re at some sort of ending for the book is really the height of hubris. Every generation falls into a stagnancy thinking they’re the end of history. But Keith Houston’s The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time aims to show that the history of the printed word can only ensure it has a bright future.

Houston has a history with this kind of topic. His first book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, was released in 2013 and is fairly self-explanatory. It even got a shoutout in a 2014 article on LitReactor, “The Eternal Duel: A History of Commas”, by Leah Dearborn. In that book he covers the history and rationale of punctuation, with a specific focus on the English language, starting with ancient Greek scrolls all the way up to hashtagged tweets in the modern era. And although this might sound incredibly dull, Houston brings his wit and humor and manages to craft a provocative read, filled with perspectives from novelists, publishers and scholars on the subject. It’s informative and entertaining.

Although books can be shared between Kindles and Nooks, it again is not the same as actually physically handing a book to someone and knowing your hands have both touched it.

And the same can be said of The Book. In it, Houston aims to lay out the history of the codex, as he specifically refers to compilations of written words on pages, and its importance and effect on human history. He does this by traveling back in time to ancient Egypt and starting with papyrus. He transitions to parchment and finally to paper, traveling around the world and including footnoted research from ancient documents. These range from Homer and The Odyssey to Shakespeare in 1594 decrying the “treacherous paper upon which he wrote” asking whether or not paper “yellow’d with their age” should be scorned. He does the same with text, illustrations and finally the form, from scrolls and wax tablets to the invention of the modern book.

And the very first thing Houston does in the introduction is tackle the elephant in the room, and that is e-books. He explains that this book won’t be about e-books, but “the corporeal ones that came before them, the unrepentantly analog contraptions of paper, ink, cardboard, and glue that we have lived with and depended on for so long.” And part of the allure of these thick, heavy things is they can be owned, whereas e-books can only ever really be rented.

This became a point of public debate back in 2009 when Cory Doctorow, the author known for such science fiction works of satire as Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, published an article on his Boing Boing blog called, “Amazon’s Orwellian Deletion of Kindle Books.” In it he discusses how at the time the “Works of George Orwell” had been published because most of Orwell’s works was in public domain, but Amazon ironically ended up removing it from Kindles and issuing a $5 credit because there’s still a long-lived copyright on Orwell’s work in the United States. The fact that the books could just be taken away from Kindle users outraged Doctorow, who started a campaign against digital rights management that continues to this day.

The Book itself has a meta aspect in that each page is marked up with descriptions of the layout of the page. This starts with the cover, as there are brackets adorning it explaining the function of each aspect. The top is the header, next to Houston’s name is “author,” to the left it says “binding tape” and “hinge.” It’s a delicious behind-the-scenes glimpse into the making-of process when it comes to books. It adds to the tactility, emphasizing how human minds and hands planned out every single aspect of this thing that can be grasped.

So why is the book the most powerful object of our time? There’s something to be said for e-books and whatever comes after as being the next step in a natural evolution that ranges all the way back to the first cave paintings. And every generation resists change, believing the events of their own era to be the apex of history.

For instance, as the book explains, according to Greek philosopher Plato, hieroglyphics were handed down by the god Thoth to the Egyptian king Thamus, but Thamus was not pleased. As he complained, “This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.” And isn’t that the same argument that’s used today for why technology offers human beings an overwhelming amount of options, to the degree that our attention span is sapped and our ability to vet sources is nullified?

Houston’s argument is made very clear in the introduction that books aren’t just important for their intellectual and historical value, but for aesthetic reasons, as well. As he passionately pleads, “pluck a physical book off your bookshelf now. Find the biggest, grandest hardback you can. Hold it in your hands. Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue. Smell it! Flip through the pages and feel the breeze on your face. An e-book imprisoned behind the glass of a tablet or computer screen is an inert thing by comparison.”

And that’s true. A book is a living thing with a personality. As I was handling it, skipping ahead to get a feel for the direction it goes, the spine strained and cracked. That’s real, I thought. That’s physical, and that’s permanent. It’s the start of wear and tear, the first step to the book ultimately falling apart in some far distance future.

Which of course raises the question: are books meant to be sacred, or should they be well-loved? Houston seems to subscribe to the former philosophy, as although he advises readers to delight in not just reading the words on the page but the full delight of the 4D experience, he also places emphasis on hardback books. His word choice, as well, describing them as “grand” hints at a man that has every Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter book, hardbound and in a box set, adorning his shelf.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, but there is something to be said for the worn-in paperback. Coffee-stained, pages faded with time, dog-eared and bent almost in half from long nights of reading—that’s character. And one of my favorite things used to be, in my impressionable teen years, underlining favorite quotes, or sometimes highlighting them. Writing in the margins in response to said quotes created a kind of diary-esque conversation with the book itself.

And of course there are the people that correct typos. Although what’s more hilarious is when they’ve corrected typos that aren’t typos.

And knowing the value of something for its content rather than its form is commendable, as is being able to pass it on to someone casually without any insistence that they finish it soon and return it as soon as they’re done. But even that is a holy experience, as what else are you doing but spreading the gospel? This book is full of great knowledge and it will change your life, so you must read it right now. And the word of mouth spreads, and now there’s something shared between two people. And although books can be shared between Kindles and Nooks, it again is not the same as actually physically handing a book to someone and knowing your hands have both touched it.

And if books are holy texts, that must mean that libraries are kind of like churches. And admittedly there’s a hypocrisy to any side I take here, because I do not spend money on books very often. It’s a rare thing. No, I am a frequent visitor to the library, and that means I always try to take as good of care of the books as possible. I do not dog-ear, I do not coffee stain, but the wear of age is inevitable.

And sadly something is missing these days from library books that once bound the communal experience together: the library loan cards that were at the back of the book. Wedged, usually at some askew angle, into a pocket in the back cover, they were always adorned with stamped dates of the last time they were checked out. This gave away a few things, including how popular the book was by how often it had been checked out, and also how long the book had been with the library.    

And the existence of libraries and library books is the best of both worlds, considering pumping out more and more books isn’t good for the environment. It destroys trees that more often than not aren’t renewed. And even if someone keeps a book their whole life, there’s no guarantee it won’t get thrown in the trash when they die. So while one major and undeniable benefit of e-books is that they prevent pollution, a library is a good way to keep a restricted amount of books in circulation. But that’s really against human nature to deny people ownership, which is exactly what Cory Doctorow argues, as those that own the knowledge control it. And Houston’s argument even veers into the pleasure of books being a selfish act at times, an indulgence that humans should be allowed.

So pick up a book sometime. Really think about where it’s been, and where it’s going. Whether or not you bought it new from Barnes & Noble or from a used book store, whether it’s an old man or a newborn babe starting its life, it’s a fount of learning. It’s a singular thing devoted entirely to one task: being read. There’s no risk of exiting a file to play Angry Birds or surf the ‘net or update your Snapchat. A book is meant to be read.

So get reading it.

About the author

A professor once told Bart Bishop that all literature is about "sex, death and religion," tainting his mind forever. A Master's in English later, he teaches college writing and tells his students the same thing, constantly, much to their chagrin. He’s also edited two published novels and loves overthinking movies, books, the theater and fiction in all forms at such varied spots as CHUD, Bleeding Cool, CityBeat and Cincinnati Magazine. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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