The history of the book therefore begins with the history of writing. No one knows for sure how writing began, for many millenniums of human history have made writing and reading such an integral part of life that it seems as if writing must have always existed.
However, theories as to the origin of writing abound. One of these theories sets the development of writing at about 8000 B.C.E. It is known that tokens of different shapes and sizes were used to keep track of goods and symbolize transactions between buyers and sellers. These tokens were also buried with the deceased and used at temples for ritual offerings.
Around 3700 B.C.E people started storing these important tokens in hollow clay balls for storage. However, after the clay balls had been sealed it was difficult to determine what tokens were in which clay balls. It is thought that people began pressing the token into the clay surface to make an impression of it, therefore marking the clay with a symbol of the token.
From there it was a small step to scratching the token’s shape in the clay. Over time the round clay storage balls were flattened, and the symbolic tokens were done away with, replaced with the new markings that could be scratched in the flat clay tablet.
Another theory about the development of writing says that people started writing when they wanted to mark the surfaces of clay jars to signify their contents.
However writing began, it was always symbolic in nature. For example, in early Egyptian hieroglyphics, the symbol for a town is a cross inside of a circle. This glyph is representative of a town wall and the intersection of two roads.
Phonetic (or syllabic) writing was the next major development. By combining pictographs that represented words with specific sounds, scribes could recreate the sounds of a word that was a personal name, or some other concept that had no designated symbolic glyph.
Over time this system became more popular because it greatly reduced the number of glyphs that needed to be remembered. In this way phonetic writing made reading possible for a considerably larger subset of people. Symbolic writing involved thousands of symbols, making reading and writing a very difficult skill learned only by the scribes and religious leaders. Phonetic writing made writing and reading easier to learn, and slowly increased literacy rates among early peoples. Most serious writing and reading was still done by scribes, but for the first time learning to read and write was a task that although difficult, was possible. Archaeologists have found millions of pottery fragments marked with early writing, showing that many common people may have learned to read and write. They used pieces of shattered pottery as a surface on which to write notes and important religious and scriptural texts.
This early stage of writing is called cuneiform writing (from the Latin word cuneus for wedge), and it typically takes the form of wedge shaped markings in clay tablets. While these clay tablets are not very similar to modern books they were the precursors that would eventually develop into books as we know it.
The early Rongorongo writing discovered on Easter Island takes the form of both geometrical and natural shapes. Rongorongo has never been deciphered.
The importance of Rongorongo is that it is a move from clay writing materials to wood. From 3000 B.C.E onward early people began using wood and other vegetable ingredients for writing. In China early books took the form of bamboo tablets, while the Egyptians used papyrus reeds to create a form of paper.
Papyrus was an important development in book history. It was produced by taking the marrow of papyrus reed plants, cutting it into strips, and placing the strips side by side in two layers. One layer was set at a right angle to the other layer. The sticky pith inside the plant made these two layers of strips stick together. Then the two layers were pounded using a hammer so that they bonded tightly, becoming a single sheet. After the papyrus had dried it could be polished with a smooth object to remove any irregularities. Scribes used ink to mark symbols onto these scrolls rather than scratching them into the surface such as had been done with early clay and wood tablets.
The scroll was a much more convenient writing device than the clay or wooden tablet. Before the scroll and long piece of writing would result in a large pile of clay or wooden tablets that would tend to get mixed up or lost. For this reason, most of the clay or wooden tablets found are not long works of writing but rather short legal or business documents. These pieces of writing could never be considered books. In contrast the scroll could be produced in sheets many feet long. After the scribes were done writing on them the scroll would be rolled up into a compact tube shape. When a person wanted to read a scroll they would simple unroll it on one end, and as they read they would roll up the other end of the scroll. In this way the scroll made longer works of writing much more feasible, both from the writing and the reading point of view. This was a major step toward the development of the book.
One of the earliest surviving translated books is the Egyptian Book of the Dead, thought to have been written about 1800 B.C.E. This important Egyptian funerary text was written on papyrus scrolls and buried with the deceased. It described the steps that would be needed for the deceased to successfully navigate the afterlife. It also contained written hymns and spells.
(Click to enlarge.)
To summarize, early books began with the start of writing. Over the formative years of writing, better and better writing surfaces were developed, starting with clay, and then progressing to wood and finally papyrus scrolls. Each development in writing technology played an important part in making the book possible.
The next installment of this Book History series will cover writing and books during the era of Greece and Rome. This important time period saw the start of book culture and book conservation as libraries were developed.