The Printed Book

by Harry G. Aldis, M.A. Cambridge at the University Press 1916


Imagine, if you can, the world suddenly bereft of books. What would it mean? Practically, the record of the accumulated sum of human knowledge swept away, and the processes of civilization limited to the experience of a single life-time, supplemented only by tradition and hearsay, dependent upon the memory of individuals. It is only by some such feat of imagination that it is possible to realize in any degree, the great part that books play in the daily life of the civilized world.

Books are the world's memory. In them is preserved the record of human thought, action, experience, and intellectual activity. We are, it is true, heirs of the ages, but our heritage consists to a large extent of books, and what we are pleased to call progress is made possible mainly through their aid. Books have come to be one of the commonest objects of everyday life. We turn to them instinctively for information of all and every kind, for intellectual recreation, and even for recreation that cannot be called intellectual.

But, what is a book? Doubtless we all think we know, but to define it in words may not be easy, so it will be well to seek the help' of a book. Dr Johnson, in the first edition of his Dictionary (1755), defined a book as 'a volume in which we read or write.' The Oxford Dictionary finds it no simple matter, and requires six columns for its full exposition, the main definition being 'a written or printed treatise or series of treatises, occupying several sheets of paper or other substance fastened together so as to compose a material whole.

Of these written or printed treatises there are many varieties besides the printed volume familiar to us by daily use. Many centuries have passed since papyrus and vellum rolls gave place to the form of book which is now used throughout the western world. In the East a large part of the reading world is accustomed to books of quite other fashion, such as the manuscript books of India, written or incised on strips of dried palm leaf; the birch-bark books of Kashmir; and the liturgical books of Burma, some made of thin plates of lacquered metal, others manufactured from the cast-off clothes of the native sovereign. But these, as well as the block-printed books of China dating from the tenth century, the similar books of Japan, and the block printed books of Tibet which resemble in shape the palm leaf manuscripts of India, do not concern us here. The scope of the present volume is limited to a brief outline of the origin and development of the printed book of the western world, printed for the most part on paper, occasionally on vellum, and more rarely on other material.

In point of time the subject falls within the last five hundred years and coincides with the era commonly accepted as the modern period of history. The invention of printing occupies a natural place in the sequence of events. The time was ripe for its appearance, since the art of writing, which it was largely to supersede, had passed its finest development and was already exhibiting signs of debasement. Some new and swifter instrument than the pen was necessary to enable the impending outburst of intellectual life and vigor to find adequate expression. Printing was not the offspring of the renaissance of letters. It preceded that movement, and, as an art, was brought to practical perfection just at the moment when the coming of the new learning had need of it as a vehicle of dissemination.