Simanaitis Says

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WE THINK OF books as being on particular topics. Even anthologies have a common theme: mysteries, short stories, and the like. But it wasn’t always that way. Here are tidbits gleaned from various sources about the transition from tablet to scroll to book, with codex an intermediate special case.

Cuneiform Tablets. Apart from the oral tradition, humanity’s first preservation of thought were wedge-shaped marks in clay tablets. These originated in the late fourth millennium B.C.

This cuneiform tablet records grain distribution by a large Mesopotamian temple, c. 3100 B.C.–2900 B.C. Image from

Despite their fragility, perhaps a million cuneiform tablets have been excavated, with approximately 30,000 to 100,000 of them translated. Irvine Finkel’s book The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, 2014, is a fascinating history, linguistic study, and detective story about translating a Babylonian cuneiform tablet.

There is linguistic resonance today in using a Sony tablet to read a Kindle book.

Scrolls. A scroll is a roll of papyrus (from the papyrus plant), parchment (from untanned skin of sheep, goats, or calves), or paper. A scroll is more portable and less fragile than a clay tablet. It’s also amenable to editing. A palimpsest, for example, is a parchment (or other writing surface) that has been recycled by scraping off the original characters.

Ancient Egyptians used scrolls for extensive record keeping. The Dead Sea Scrolls, some originally discovered in 1946–1947, are still being unearthed in the West Bank, now part of Israel, then part of Jordan. Many of these date from 300 B.C. to 100 A.D.

Even today, scrolls are used as ceremonial or religious documents.

A Torah of modern Judism. Image from

Codices. A codex is a book constructed of sheets of papyrus, vellum (calfskin parchment), or paper. According to Wikipedia, “The term is now usually only used of manuscript books, with hand-written contents.”

Evolving in Roman times, codices replaced lengthy scrolls. Wikipedia notes, “First described by the 1st-century A.D. Roman poet Martial, who praised its convenient use, the codex achieved numerical parity with the scroll around 300 A.D., and had completely replaced it throughout what was by then a Christianized Greco-Roman world by the 6th century.”

The Codex Gigas, from thirteenth-century Bohemia. In Latin, it collects the Vulgate Bible and other works. Image from Kungi. biblioteket.

The Aztecs formed codices from long folded strips of fig bark or other plant fibers. New World codices were written as late as the sixteenth century, some of them in Spanish.

The Aztec Codex Mendoza, from the mid-sixteenth century, lists tributes paid by towns to the Aztec empire. Image from the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University.

Books. Wikipedia describes a book as “a stack of usually rectangular pages (made of papyrus, parchment, vellum, or paper) oriented with one edge tied, sewn, or otherwise fixed together and then bound to the flexible spine of a protective cover of heavier, relatively inflexible material. The technical term for this physical arrangement is codex (in the plural, codices).”

Well, that handles it.

Originally, though… In his book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, Keith Houston offers an interesting tidbit about early books: They “were not so much bought as project-managed into existence. Before a “book” could even be considered to exist as such, a buyer first had to choose the materials it should hold.”

“Manuscripts,” Houston writes, “were often supplied unbound, and a single bound volume might contain two or more unrelated works. Depending on the era, Shakespeare could be found alongside a religious work, or a calendar juxtaposed with an encyclopedia, and in one noteworthy example of ‘remixing,’ a sixteenth-century poet had another author’s work bound into his notebook so that he could interweave original and cribbed lines.”

This reminds me of a friend’s description of a particularly jarring double feature he attended as a kid: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs followed by The Portrait of Dorian Gray. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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