Something to Be Thankful For
By: Danielle Borst
It’s that time of year again where we take stock of our lives and realize all that we have to be thankful for. So, I want to take a moment to give thanks to something we are all familiar with but rarely think about. I am talking about the invention of books. The modern book did not just spring forth out of nowhere. The written word had many predecessors before settling on the form we all know and love today. One such predecessor is the papyrus scroll, invented by the Ancient Egyptians. Around 3000 BCE, Egyptian scribes began cutting papyrus sheets to matching heights and pasting them together into a long line with a bit of flour and water. These series of papyrus sheets could then be rolled up for storage. These papyrus scrolls were the first form of books used by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. However, scrolls were by no means the stopping point for the written word.
As with many things, the Ancient Romans were not content with keeping books in the format given to them. Instead, they decided to play around with the combination of multiple pages of writings. This resulted in the codex. Codices are comprised of several sheets bound together along one edge. These sheets could be parchment, papyrus, or any similar material. The invention of the codex is shrouded in mystery. Some believe it was Julius Caesar who first thought to bind pages together in a book-like fashion to form a small notebook in which he wrote letters to the senate. However, there is evidence that the codex predates Caesar and may have even come from somewhere other than Rome. Either way, the codex is seen as one of the first forms of modern-day books.
When codices started making an appearance, there were very few rules on how to put them together. They were almost all comprised of pages gathered into groups (gatherings) made up of several sheets (folios) folded in half and sewn together at the spine. However, the number of folios in each gathering varied. Some were symmetrical, while others had a combination of large and small gatherings. Now a days, these gatherings are comprised of the same number of folios. This is partly to keep things symmetrical, but mostly to make work easier for the machines that have taken over for human bookbinders.
So, why is all of this important if machines have completely changed the way we now create books? Well, here at Book Arts Collaborative, we practice the old arts of bookbinding. Each member learns how to fold folios into gatherings that are then sewn together with a hard exterior to create books. For us, the method is the same used hundreds of years ago. So, I am thankful for the invention of books and the old ways of creating them.
Houston, Keith. The Book: A Cover-To-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016
This piece was written by a Ball State University student and member of the Book Arts Collaborative in Muncie, Indiana. The Book Arts Collaborative is dedicated to preserving and promoting the apprentice-taught skills of letterpress printing and book binding through community interaction. It's not just what we make that matters, but how we learn from one another to make it happen.