E-books are getting all the attention in publishing news lately: Amazon claims to be selling a lot of the great Kindle 3… Amazon is selling a lot more e-books than Apple… Apple is looking to add ads to e-books … and so it goes.
But while e-books are clearly on the ascendancy right now, they are only the most recent recent development in more than three millennia of writing an publishing. The Atlantic has published a great story on its website discussing “10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books.” The article goes into some depth, but here are the high points:
- The phrase “reading revolution” was popularized by German historian Rolf Engelsing to describe the movement in the 18th century from reading a few texts intensively to the extensive reading of many texts.
- The “print revolution” came from Gutenberg’s introduction of moveable type in the 1450s. Andrew Pettegree has a new history of the early days of publishing called The Book in the Renaissance.
- While there are many developments in the early history of writing, the development of the phonetic alphabet stands out. Phonetic alphabets were the first form of writing that connected the written language to the spoken form of the language.
- If we go back before Gutenberg, the big revolution in books was the change from the rolled scroll to the folded codex. The codex would be recognized as a book to modern folk. They were easier to carry than scrolls and allowed for close to random access to the text within.
- The change from scroll to codex was enabled by the evolution of writing surfaces from papyrus to parchment to paper. (And from rock walls to clay tablets to papyrus…)
- Reading became popular and affordable when the industrial revolution brought steam power to printing. This, along with inexpensive woodpulp paper, made books, magazines and newspapers much cheaper.
- The electronic age has transformed reading by merging it with audiovisual media.
- The development and expansion of computers moved us from paper to screens.
- Writing has moved from media that persist in time into media that are easy to move through space. This is based on the work of Canadian railroad economist Harold Innis, who argued that all media have two competing biases – longevity v. portability. He argues that culture is shaped by these two biases or characteristics. He writes that the development of parchment allowed Caesar to control his armies at a distance through written orders and decrees in a way that he never could have when writing was distributed on clay tablets. In my opinion, Innis’s ideas deserve far more attention than they typically receive. I was pleased to find this one on the list.
- Here is the strangest one, though it’s fascinating. We have moved from writing that is consumed upright (i.e. vertical) such as writing on walls, to writing that is horizontal – scrolls on sloping desks or books read in bed, back to writing that is vertical on screens. This is built on the ideas of Walter Benjamin. Don’t know what I make of this one.
Again, I can’t recommend this article highly enough. Fascinating reading.