History of the Book Over the last five thousand years, there have been four different transformations of that lovely little item we know as a “book.” Societal needs and technological innovations helped shape these transformations and continue to do so, as we move into an age of war between the “old fashioned book” and its digital descendant. Just like this change in our current understandings of what defines a book, each manifestation of the “book” has changed drastically in shape and structure.
From the clay tablets of 2500 B.C. to the little Kindle of today, every version of this house of human knowledge is nearly unrecognizable from the last. As their forms change, so do the methods of production with each new invention and technological advancement. Over the book’s history from a tablet to a codex to its electronic form, there have been three major transformations: first with machine printing from caste type (1455-1814), then nonhuman power with presses and typecasting machines (1814-1970), and finally with computerized composition.
Toward the beginning of its production, the more original forms of the book were long-lasting formats, used for thousands of years before its next step in its evolution. As the speed of production increased, its format changed as well as the frequency of this change. Clay Tablets The origins of writing and the beginnings of its history begin in Southern Mesopotamia. By 3400 B.C. the earliest cities arose, along with the need to record and transfer information as trade, administration, and government grew.
There are three basic ways of writing. One is to draw a picture of the word it represents, known as a pictogram. Another is to use one sign, or several put together, to symbolize the sound of a word, which is known as syllabic and only requires a few hundred different signs, whereas pictograms require thousands. The third basic type of writing, called alphabetic writing, involves assembling the sounds of words from just a couple of dozen signs.
By 2500 B.C., the clay-tablet system was mature and involved three major components: manual writing, clay technology, and the organization of collections of tablets. Its advantage lie in the ease with which would could hold it in one hand or lay it on a flat surface. No one knows for sure how they made their tablets but one proposal is that the Sumerians repeatedly washed clay in water, let it settle in a vat, then strained it to achieve a fine grained clay, which was written on while damp and then allowed to dry or was baked in a kiln.
With the rise of West Semitic alphabet-like syllabaries in the second millennium B.C. came the decline of the clay tablet after its two and a half millennia reign of stability.
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