Once in a while, you discover a really great book. It’s something to celebrate, especially when you consider how long it took for book manufacturing technology to develop. While readily available clay formed the substrate for the world’s earliest writing, clay tablets are cumbersome and breakable. Over time, they were replaced by other materials, such as papyrus, parchment and paper. 

Papyrus documents (made from water reeds) date back to 2900 BCE (Before the Common Era) in Egypt. The texture of papyrus allows writing on only one rough surface; it also makes folding difficult, so documents were rolled into scrolls.

Parchment, made from animal skin, was used by the Greeks (in what is now Turkey) as early as 1500 BCE. The word vellum can refer to the same thing, or can indicate very thin, high quality skin. Parchment has a smooth surface that allows writing on both sides, and it can be folded into books. It is very durable, but takes a lot of preparation.

Paper was originally made of fabric fibres and is said to have been invented in China in 108 CE (Common Era, the culturally neutral term for AD). Its use slowly spread, and paper eventually arrived in western Europe around 1200 CE. Mass production of wood fibre paper began in the 1840s. Rag paper is more durable than wood fibre paper, because wood fibres are shorter and contain chemicals such as lignin and acid, which lead to its degradation over time.

Various paints and inks were used on these assorted surfaces to record handwritten language. Official paper documents frequently used iron gall ink, an expensive black ink that has the unfortunate long term affect of corroding the paper it is written on. People sometimes made their own ink out of materials at hand. The British National Archives recently published a recipe for berry ink, if  you want to give it a try.

Then, in 1440 CE, Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing system that combined mass produced movable type, oil-based ink, adjustable molds, and a wooden printing press. This method of rapidly making identical copies of a manuscript allowed mass produced books, and consequently revolutionized society. An excellent documentary, hosted by Stephen Fry, examines the various raw materials of printing and chronicles the recreation of a wooden Gutenberg printing press: “The Machine That Made Us”.

All these technological inventions contributed to the books we buy and borrow today. Books don’t just tell us a story or impart knowledge, they are the embodiment of human innovation and the outcome of historical processes. So, this summer, as you lounge on the porch with a novel in hand, you may be surprised to find out you are actually reading history!

This article was originally printed in THE BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.

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