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The Oxford Companion to the Book
The Oxford Companion to the Book

Oxford University Press, 2010
1408 pp., $355.00

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Alan Jacobs

The Idea of the Book

Harder to define than you supposed.

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Nor does Olson have much to say about the role the Jewish and especially the Christian scriptures had in shaping the Western world's, and ultimately the entire world's, understanding of the very concept of "book." (Yes, I am returning to this point, but what's the point of having a hobbyhorse if you're not going to ride it?) Scholars have known for a long time now that Christians made the shift from the scroll to the codex long before either pagans or Jews, but there has been no general agreement on why they did so. Certainly there are practical, material reasons to prefer the codex: for instance, because you can write on both sides of a sheet, it is less expensive than scrolls, which leave one side unused. But it's not clear why that would be more important to Christians than to others. The first codices seem to have been small notebooks that Roman politicians and intellectuals liked—they were the Blackberrys of that place and time—and these had the advantage of portability, which Christians may have appreciated as they sought to spread the Good News, through the Gospels and collections of Paul's letters, across the Empire via the Roman roads.

But, though historians of the book seem unwilling to credit it, there may also have been strong theological reasons for Christians to prefer the codex, reasons which became stronger as the technology developed in ways that allowed more and more of the Scriptures to be included in a single volume. Binding together "the little books"—that's what ta biblia means—emphasizes their chronological and contextual relations to one another. It shows them as part of one story. It took a while for the church to create the early great codices—the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus date from the 4th century—but once they came into existence they offered a clear material testimony to the oneness of Scripture. Surely this was a prime reason why the Emperor Constantine, in 331 (some scholars say earlier), wrote to the great bishop and scholar Eusebius of Caesarea and required him to have made and then send to Rome fifty complete Bibles. The oneness of Scripture testifies to the oneness of the faith.

And that oneness of Scripture becomes key to the symbolic meaning of the book that Brian Cummings writes about in the Companion. One of Dante's final visions, in the last canto of the Paradiso, as he completes his journey through the universe, is of creation as "pages scattered through the universe" but "by love into a single volume bound." And in a glorious passage that Cummings does not quote, from his "Meditation XVII," John Donne affirms that

all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

It is this image of absolute coherence, of all truth bound firmly together in a single vision, that has for dozens of generations constituted the very ideal of the book. Augustine had it in mind when he wrote The City of God, and Joyce when he wrote Ulysses. It is an image worth holding in our minds.

4. In the essay entitled "The Electronic Book," Eileen Gardiner and Ronald G. Musto introduce their topic thusly: "An electronic book (also e-book, ebook, digital book) is a text- and image-based publication in digital form produced on, published by, and readable on computers or other digital devices …. The e-book is a young medium and its definition is a work in progress, emerging from the history of the print book and evolving technology. In this context it is less useful to consider the book as object—particularly as commercial object—than to view it as cultural practice, with the e-book as one manifestation of this practice." Note here the recognition that book-as-object must often be distinguished from what I have called book-as-concept and they call book-as-practice. Changes in technology force these distinctions upon us.

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