In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • The Book: The Life Story of a Technology
  • Michael Dzanko
The Book: The Life Story of a Technology. By Nicole Howard . Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. xvi, 171 pp. $45.00. ISBN 0-313-33028-X.

There is something ineffably sad about beginning a book about the book with John Milton's assertion that "books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them" (ix). For readers, scholars, and bibliophiles there is, of course, no need to justify the book's usefulness, to say nothing of its vitality. Even so, Nicole Howard is compelled to introduce her erudite book with just such a justification. Her reasons for doing so are understandable, as her book, The Book: The Life Story of a Technology, is one in a series of biographies of technologies. The précis set out by the series editors dictates that each volume tells the life story of a particularly important technology from its ancestors to the present. The technologies themselves range from those that have been around for centuries, such as firearms and the book, to the far more recent inventions of electronics and the computer (vii). This anxiety of both author and editors is not misplaced, for the humble book, despite its ubiquity, does not sit so easily with more obviously "modern" technologies. The difficulty is that, even though the book is arguably the one technology that has made all others possible, it is also the most taken for granted. What Howard does is provide an exceedingly accessible retelling of the book's life story, one that shows precisely how books "represent a peak of technology, giving permanence and form to ideas" and relevance and resonance to their readers (x).

As is appropriate to a life story, each chapter charts a particular period of the book's genealogy and development. The first chapter tells the story of the book's ancestors and traces its progress from Hammurabi's code in 3000 B.C.E. to the rise of humanism in fifteenth-century Europe. Beginning with Pliny the Elder's remarks on the process of turning papyrus reeds into paper, the shift to the more recognizable codex is set out under easy-to-follow subheadings. By complementing the necessary details about the book-making process with what amounts to [End Page 205] vignettes about the book's earliest producers and readers, Howard breathes new life into what might otherwise be a mundane tale. In this way, depictions of life in monastic scriptoria are neatly contrasted with those in Eastern mosques and madrasas, and the making of the Western block book, the Biblia Paupernum, or Bible of the Poor, with those read in Baghdad's Bayt al hikma [House of Wisdom]. The chapter ends with a fascinating, if brief, discussion of the "coming of the book" and the roles of its keepers and collectors in its preservation and propagation.

The second and third chapters tell the story of the book's infancy and youth. The book's "infancy" (1450–1500) is almost entirely concerned with untangling the twisted skein that is Johannes Gutenberg's contribution as inventor of printing and reputed grandfather of the book. There follows a detailed account of an early printing operation, with each of the press's "midwives" (compositors, inkers, pressmen, and binders) receiving their due. The book's "youth," however, is covered in some detail, given that it was in the sixteenth century when the book came into its own. Here, the role of the book as humanist icon, first noted in the opening chapter, finds its full expression during the Reformation. The changes in both its formats and topics were profound, and the transitional—and revolutionary—nature of the book is explored in some depth. However, although these changes are neatly set out and elegantly illustrated, what is most striking about this chapter is how ably Howard relates these oft-told tales to a modern audience. By noting that the shift from folios to Aldine editions "did for books what laptops did for computers" and comparing early-modern book piracies with those associated today with videos, CDs, and DVDs, she does far more for her subject...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 205-207
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.