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The Oxford Companion to the Book

Anne Zaccardelli, Library and Online Sales Assistant

The Oxford Companion to the Book is the first reference work of its kind covering the broad concept of the book throughout the world from ancient to modern times. Edited by Michael F. Suarez, S.J. 9780198606536and H. R. Woudhuyen, it consists of topical essays as well as A – Z entries. Michael F. Suarez, S.J. is University Professor, Director of the Rare Book School, and Hon. Curator of Special Collections at the University of Virginia. H. R. Woudhuysen is Professor of English at University College London. In the post below, I talk about the ebook format compares and contrasts with various book formats throughout history.

This past December, I received a Kindle for my Christmas present. As you can imagine, I’ve been fielding questions and comments from not only my friends and family, but from random people on the subway and at the coffee shop. Often, these conversations become affirmations about how one could never forsake a physical, paper book.

“I could never use an e-reader,” they say, “I like the smell of books.”

“A book is like a trophy—I love putting it on my shelf when I’m done.”

Of course, they stare at me blankly when I tell them that reading just one ebook on an e-reader might make them change their opinion.

With the introduction of another e-reader, the ipad, many of us are contemplating the future of the book. To put these developments in perspective, I decided to see what The Oxford Companion to Book had to say about history of the book. After all, writing once made the jump from the scroll to the codex—did our ancestors really miss the smell of a scroll or rolling it up?

While I didn’t find a list of complaints, though I did come to a better understanding about how the book has changed throughout history. In Craig Kallendorf’s essay, The Ancient Book, he explains that in the Western world the use of parchment to create scrolls left the manuscripts too heavy so fashioning it into a codex was more desirable. Moreover, with the rise of Christianity, it was much quicker to locate a biblical passage in a codex than in a scroll. The same can be said of our e-readers—I can carry my 1,000 page book in a 10.2 ounce container. And while I’m no longer able to dog-ear my pages on my e-reader, if I need to look up a definition of a word all I have to do is rest the cursor in front of a word.

The idea of convenience also turned up in the essay, The Electronic Book by Eileen Gardiner and Ronald G Musto. It turns out that our average paperback book of today may have not been the most desired format for “readers” in the medieval age.

In Europe, the original manner in which books were produced was, of course, by hand. However, these books weren’t just books, they were works of art—each manuscript was an original with its own elaborate fonts and pictures, paragraph size, and margins. In the early 15th century, block printing used blocks of wood carved with the appropriate images and text—these one sided, single pages would be then bound as a book.

However around 1450, Johann Gutenberg popularized a new means of production: moveable type. However, Gutenberg’s method of production had some major drawbacks. Gutenberg method forced standardization—no longer could you include a colorful picture or an elaborate font wherever you wanted on the page. Paragraph size and margins were restricted by the moveable type. However, nearly two centuries later, as the demand for books grew, moveable type won out by offering “convenience, economy, and consistency.”

With my e-reader, I can download a book whenever and almost wherever I want, which for me, is the epitome of convenience. I wonder if two centuries from now the ebook will be last book standing due to its convenience? Of course, it is yet to be seen whether the benefits of the e-reader will out weigh its costs.

While many of us are horrified to lose the printed book, I look forward to the new reading experiences e-readers offer.

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  3. Evan

    If terrorists perfect the electro-magnetic field (EMF) weapon, an EMF burst could leave only books on library shelves standing — all electric media on ereaders, well, “poof” as in now you read it, now you don’t!

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