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From Paper to Bytes, the Evolution of the Text and the Intellectual Elite

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Written text has been conveyed through many different means over the course of civilization, no matter the era or region.  Stone tablets such as the Rosetta stone or on a stele, a tall column-like object, in the case of Hammurabi’s Code.  Due to their weight and bulk, however, stone was replaced with paper scrolls.  Books in Western Civilization were invention of the medieval period, out of necessity for Roman Catholic Christian scripture (Truitt). Prior to the widespread practice of Christianity, scrolls served the same function, allowing readers to start at the beginning, save their place mid-text, and read through to the end. For instance, in Judaism, practitioners read the religious text from beginning to end, and when they finished, they would start again. However, in Christianity, the services place the liturgy thematically rather than spatially, and it required a new method of storing that information so that priests could read scripture out of order. This new method, as previously stated, was the book.

However, books were rare due to prohibitively high costs. Originally, pages of vellum were made from animal skins, preferably sheep, and a single sheep could only produce one or two pages (Getty). Making a complete book often required slaughtering an entire flock, so only the wealthiest patrons in Europe could afford a single book. Owning multiple books, let alone a library, was an incredibly expensive status symbol similar to expensive jewelry or owning a large house or two.  And, in general, only the literate owned books. As a result, these two qualifications narrowed the field of potential book-owners to such a degree that books were symbols of wealth, pretentiousness, or religious devotion until paper became a more popular page type around 1450 (Getty).


Paper was first invented in the form of papyrus, from which the word paper derives its etymology, around 3000 BCE.   Paper-makers created the sheets by peeling and slicing stalks of papyrus plants into strips that were then layered and pounded together to make even sheets (Wisconsin Paper Council).  Just after the beginning of the Common Era, in 105 CE, a man in China named Ts’ai Lun created paper out of textile waste, using excess rags as his raw material (Paper Online).  This art spread to Japan during the 3rd century and to the Arabian empire in the early 8th century, but as part of the Arabian empire, paper-making also made its way to northern Africa and Spain (HQ Paper Maker, Paper Online).  But despite its existence and presence in Europe, paper was still not the preferred template for written materials until the mid-15th century.  Paper-makers worked throughout the 13th and 14th centuries to improve upon the process, thereby increasing paper’s popularity and status among the elites and with the government (Paper Online).  By capturing these groups’ interests, paper’s space in the economic market was secure.  Even though paper could be made more quickly and less expensively than parchment, it still took four men thirteen hours to create 4,500 sheets of paper, or about nine reams (Paper Online).  Today, an average box of paper holds ten reams.

Paper pages did make books cheaper, but that did not make them more available. Until the printing press was invented in the 15th century, all books were painstakingly handwritten by scribes (Cornell). A single error could invalidate an entire page, requiring the scribe to scrape off a layer of parchment and try again. The combination of the parchment’s expense, plus the expense of feeding and housing a scribe while he copied the text, meant that a library was often only twenty books. I use the word “only,” because twenty is such a small number of books by our modern standards and to have so few in a library seems impossible and ridiculous. But that was the reality of early books, a reality far different from our own. This changed significantly when the printing press made books’ creation both faster and cheaper.

The printing press made books much more available. Within fifty years, the use of a printing press had produced more than 20 million copies of over 35,000 individual books (Jones). Libraries collected more books for less money, and scholars did not always have to travel to another country to find a single book. However, illiteracy still prevented the majority of people from accessing books. Due to the wide gap between the educated wealthy and the uneducated masses, books were still a wealthy person’s status symbol as long as libraries remained private institutions open only to paying members.

Ts’ai Lun’s original method of paper-making using old rags continued through to the late 18th century when Europe began to suffer a shortage of rags, causing countries to regulate their trade (Paper Online).  Other important additions to the paper-making process were chemical bleaching in 1798 under revolutionary France and the first wood-based paper in 1843 (Paper Online).  The combination of these two things lead to the first incarnation of what we consider to be “regular” paper (Paper Online).  With the aid of greatly improved technology, mass production of paper began during the late 18th century (HQ Paper Maker).  The combination of paper’s mass production and the mass production of typed script allowed books to be both cheaper and more available for the first time since the book was created.  Though still costing money, the average person could afford to buy one or two books, even if that book was only the family Bible.  Even so, public education in the United States was not yet mandatory, so illiteracy still restricted access to text, even when availability no longer stood in the way.

The first free library in America was founded in Philadelphia in 1894 (Free Library). Examining this time period, books were available for 900 or so years before any books were available to the public. Before the free library was open, libraries were for religious scholars or private subscribers, depending on the point in which the 900-year period a library’s visitor lived. However, the library’s founding, combined with more widespread literacy brought by public elementary education, made books free for the majority of people for the first time ever. Though not all children were required to attend elementary school until 1918, these two were closely correlated in the spread of books and reading (Thattai). These events occurred a mere 100 years ago, an incredibly short time span in the book’s life. 

However, as books became more available, publishers began devaluing their own product.  Starting around the mid-19th century and continuing from there, the paper produced was of a much lesser quality than any paper produced previously (Victoria & Albert Museum).  The combination of the wood pulp and chemical bleaching created a poorer quality product because the base components were of poorer quality than the rag-based paper (Victoria & Albert Museum).  Additionally, the natural acidity of the wood pulp caused the paper to discolor relatively quickly, especially compared to earlier types of paper (Victoria & Albert Museum).  The wood pulp was much cheaper than rags, which were becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, and cheaper manufacturing is routinely a motivating factor for western commercial ventures.  However, by creating a product with less quality ingredients, paper mills and publishers began working together to create books that fell apart more quickly than the books that had been produced since the medieval period until this point in the 19th century.  With the change in basic components, manufacturers clearly chose to value profit over the physical book.  Lesser costs resulted in cheaper final products, allowing access to spread with libraries and mandatory public education, but it also created a cultural atmosphere in which the quality of the book itself did not matter.  Rather, the book’s content became the basis for quality.

In Sven Birket’s speech “Books in the Technological Age,” he comments on the deterioration of reading in our modern culture. He posits that a

love of literature and of reading of the sort that could be called "immersive" -- as opposed to "escapist" -- is bound up with this attitude toward life which we can call, using the word as shorthand, "romantic." And I believe, further, that the romantic is very closely tied to the private, and that it is this, the private, that is threatened with eradication, not just by the myriad electronic circuits we have woven into the fabric of our lives, but also by the collective mind-state that upholds circuited interconnectedness as ultimately desirable. Birket

Birket clearly believes that modern technology is demolishing our desire and ability to read books, as if reading is an activity the majority of people have been doing for hundreds of years. He discusses reading as if there is only one way to read a work, only one way for a reader to engage with the subject. In fact, Birket’s speech seems to fall in line exactly with the book’s pretentious, only-the-wealthy-welcome history, a status he reclaims for books when he claims that “books and reading suffer a prestige drop” (Birket). Do books have to be prestigious to be relevant to society and to culture? If so, how can we justify allowing publishers to put out works that are more likely to generate money than thought-provoking and stimulating discussions?  And, if the physical books are more important than the content, why do we allow publishers to use the wood pulp-based paper which falls apart more quickly?  Birket wants us to rekindle our love and valuing of books, but he does not consider the historical or economic reasons why we as a society have taken away much of the importance given to these objects.

Birket implicates that “true” reading (whatever that means to you) can only occur with a physical book, never mind that the majority of Americans have only had access to books and the ability to read them for about 80 years. He also states that “we see an even greater collective distancing from the culture of books and ideas,” as if ideas can only be recorded in and read from books (Birket). That Birket believes what he says is deeply unsettling. Why do books have to be the end-all, be-all of communication? I do love books, but not every great idea or character or storyline has to be in a book. For the same reason that audio books are still books as are e-books, despite a lack of pages, why does any text written on the internet need a different title?  Given the history of the book, Birket’s presumptions and complaints serve merely to make him sound pretentious and disconnected from the rest of society. 

However, Birket is not the only one complaining about this move away from books to more electronic forms of text.  Several bloggers prefer books over electronic readers (e-readers), the best known of these being the Kindle.  Barnes & Noble has their own version called the Nook, as does Sony, and the new Apple iPad is Apple’s attempt to enter into this e-text market.  Some internet users are concerned with the feel of a physical book, including interestingly a large number of participants on an discussion about the Kindle versus the book (Amazon).  Some worry about their inability to write in margins (Utley).  One blogger focused more on the environmental impact and credited the book with being friendlier in the long term (Wolk-Stanley).  Others hesitate at the high cost and wonder if an e-reader is really worth the expense (Utley).  Other sites take a more humorous approach to comparing e-readers to physical books, whether with deadpan sarcasm or with dramatic and implausible situations (Brignull, Mott, Valleywag).  One scholar argued against digitizing our literary texts because it causes us to lose the “printed codex, paper, binding, and the specific kind of graphic marks made at any historical moment” in a given book (Mandell).  Through digitization, we lose the physical reminders of history such as finger prints, scratches, tears, and palimpsests, all of which are important historical tools, even if they are not as useful for literary studies.[1]  The most important part of all of these online forums is that they prefer the book over the e-reader.  Though there are some avid e-reader enthusiasts, most internet commentators would rather continue using their old-fashioned books.  The best argument I have seen for the e-reader via an online source is that an e-reader with a given number of books stored in its memory is several times lighter than carrying the physical copies of all of those same books (Mott).

But the big publishers see the future of the industry in these e-readers, not in continued used of the physic book.  Between the years 2002 and 2008, the annual sales for book publishers had risen a mere 1.6% thereby creating an ever-shrinking profit margin for the publishing industry (Auletta).  Nonetheless, e-book sales rose 127% in 2009 (Auletta).  Despite their desire for the e-book to revolutionize the publishing industry, publishers worry that the cost per book as advertised by Amazon (on average, $9.99) would mean “game over” for the industry (Auletta).  Given that publishers sold books to Amazon for $13.99, the publishing industry would have suffered, even though Amazon was the company taking the loss in profit.  With the Apple iPad on the market as now the most direct competitor to the Amazon Kindle, publishers hope that the competition will allow these two e-reader manufacturers to raise the costs on their e-books and force consumers to expect to pay more money for the text (Auletta).  Once again, publishers are devaluing their physical product in order to increase profits.  In this new era of publishing and electronic media, the form of the book is less important than the content.

I agree that there are some drawbacks to distancing ourselves from books. For instance, on my flight to California for spring break, I was talking to one of the flight attendants during our layover, and she complained about how Kindles and other e-readers have made it more difficult for her to approach passengers to discuss their reading choices. And for the rest of us, how can we strike up a conversation about books in someone’s home if their books are no longer stored on shelves, but on their hard drive?  Though I’ve never been one to write in my books, I agree with Brian Utley that the option should be available, and that it would be nice to have the physical reminders of our memories; a book does not have to be just the text on a page.  A book can also represent nostalgia, a period in our lives, or a specific moment which we would otherwise not recall.

But on the other hand, I like that Amazon can recommend titles to me or tell me when a book by a favored author is due to be released. Not having to rely on word-of-mouth makes it easier for me to find titles I want when I do not have hours to browse at the bookstore. I agree with Birket that the nature of reading and books is evolving away from our comfort zones, but that simply falls into the pattern of the book’s history. Literature is not static, and nor are its forms. Text originated on stone, then in a scroll, next in a book, and now on the internet.  I think what is even more important than the form our literature takes is society’s access to texts and their perception of those works. If we as a society do not want to lose reading as part of our culture, we must work harder to remove the pretentious stigma that has followed the book since its inception.

The e-reader has also served to create a new genre of literature by creating the e-book.  Though the text may be the same as the physical book, the form in which we read it has changed.  The form of our texts has become important over the last century, since the beginning of modern book construction.  There are the merits of hardcover versus paperback books, and if you get the paperback, are you ready for the pages to turn orange and crumble over the next twenty to fifty years?  Hardcover books are also sturdier, but they cost more.  Paperbacks may be much cheaper, the so is the quality of the paper used.  In the genre of books, every book has fallen either into hardcover, paperback, or with more successful books, both, which makes those particular versions of texts genres themselves.  But now with audio books and e-books, a text has a broader range of genres into which it can fit.  With the addition of audio books and e-books to our cultural framework, each of which is a genre of text in its own right, the traditional, physical book has also become a genre of literature.

Genres can only exist relative to each other because it is their differences which set them apart from one another.  A physical book never needed to be a genre of literature because there were not any other ways to read the same content.  Different content might appear in different forms: magazines, journals, newspapers, billboards, or diaries.  But a traditional book’s content only fit into a book, thus negating a need for any other form for the same material.  Without contrasting forms for the same content, there was not a need to separate the forms into different genres.  However, audio books and e-books provide that contrast, making it necessary for each of them to become its own genre of literature, even above the fiction and non-fiction categories.  The experience of digesting that literary work changes drastically, even though the content of an individual text may not change between an audio-book, an e-book, and a traditional book.  The testimonies I have found on the internet about traditional book versus e-book consumption still loudly prefer the traditional book experience.

However, the e-reader is not making it easier for us to spread access to reading.  Though the texts themselves may be cheaper, the initial purchase of the e-reader is incredibly cost prohibitive, and why would anyone buy a Kindle ($259.00 before shipping) or an iPad ($499 before shipping) when a new Dell desktop PC computer is a mere $249 and an iPod Touch is $199, each of which is cheaper than a Kindle, which is already less than the iPad.  Even in the process of trying to cut down costs and make text more portable, e-reader manufacturers and publishers have created a system in which the object to be read is a status symbol.  Like the original vellum-paged books, e-readers set the wealthy apart by providing them with a physical marker of their elitism.

 E-readers and e-texts are best supported by the academic community as opposed to the common folk.  These academics argue that they need to catch up to the rest of society because apparently publishing in an academic journal is woefully passé.  However, given the evidence of the common folk who form the rest of society, the efforts to catch up and keep pace are in fact attempts to remain ahead.  Jerome McGann wrote an article published in a printed academic journal that specifically stated “digital illiteracy puts us on the margin of conversations and actions that affect the center of our cultural interests (as citizens) and our professional interests (as scholars and educators)” (McGann).  Growing up and attending college in an intensely academic community has taught me something about academics: they hate to feel ignorant, and digitized texts do exactly that.

McGann sees online publication as the “natural and inevitable response to this general problem of scholarly and educational communication” and that scholars cannot enter into the modern era until they are “prepared not simply to access archived materials online-which is increasingly done-but to publish and to peer-review online-to carry out the major part of our productive educational work in digital forms” (McGann).  In order to combat this so-called problem, McGann and some of his peers have established an online database called NINES, which is an acronym for “Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship” (McGann).  Their efforts, given the summary he provides in his article (ironically published in a physical journal), seek to replicate the scholarly publication process with peer-review and an editing board to help academics pass muster with their work.

NINES and other online scholarly databases are trying to stay current and relevant, but in their quest to do so, they merely serve to alienate the common folk on the internet.  By creating an exclusive, edited venue online, academics are seeking to edit the opinions on the internet.  Most online arenas are moderated to censure specific words or topics, depending on the target age group.  However, what academics do not realize about the internet is that almost all content on the internet is already peer-edited and reviewed.  The comments section on any website is rife with name-calling, fact corrections, unofficial spell and grammar checks, and often truly intelligent debates about any given topic.  By creating “official,” edited spaces for these conversations to occur online, scholars are attempting a fundamental change in the use and purpose of the internet.  Through edited, peer-reviewed work that defines “peer” to be a very specific type of person with a certain degree and job title, NINES and other internet academic databases are eliminating huge portions of the population from a conversation they would happily have on any other website.

The best part about the internet is the access it provides to the common folk who would not normally have access to such intellectual debate.  Through the internet, people are given an opportunity to meet others who share their interests but do not necessarily agree with them on everything.  For many of us, when we meet people like that in real life, we never become friends with them, and we often try to ignore them.  On the internet, we are able to engage in stimulating debate about any topic we enjoy.  Whether that topic is something heavy and serious, such as politics, human rights, or environmentalism, or something more trivial, such as fashion, video games, or television or movies, it is 100% possible to find other people who are interested in that topic and want to talk about it in-depth.  The internet and online forums provide access to literature and intellectual commentary, opening up the realm of academia.  Furthermore, because the internet is so popular at this moment, many people prioritize access to the internet over other optional expenditures they could make.

Access to literature and intellectual debate about those works is spreading through the internet.  With e-books and online forums, even the common folk are able to engage in what was once the dominion of scholars and academics.  However, because this access is spread, books are losing their value and importance in society, despite the historical contributions the physical objects are able to make about our culture during a specific time period.  This devaluing of the physical object does not matter in the longer term, though, because the content is not changing.  Rather, the content is merely becoming available through new, more accessible means.  Though the spread of and access to this knowledge can only help society as a whole, scholars seem to fear this move away from books as the primary source for text.  Academics either want to spread their discourse to the internet as a means of seizing the internet for their own benefit or fear the online world because it splits away from the book which has been the means for scholarly discourse since the medieval period.  Either way, the academic community appears to want to keep this knowledge for itself and prevent access whenever possible.  Given the evidence, it does not appear that the intellectual community cares what the form of a text is, whether it resides in the material or e-book genre.  Instead, they care much more about maintaining their intellectual superiority by limiting who can access these works.  It also creates an interesting contrast to the publishing community which wants e-books to succeed magnificently for the sake of capitalism.  Each of these major forces in written work focuses so much on the personal benefits the evolving world of written text, but none look at the impact at society on the whole, including the ways in which e-books may or may not alienate current readers or attract new ones.


[1] Because medieval parchment was so expensive, they tried to reuse as much of the vellum as possible.  But in order to do that, the ink was scraped off and new words were written on the parchment.  The palimpsest is the term used by medieval historians for the original text that was on the page.




Works Cited & Referenced

Amazon.  “Customer Discussions: Kindle vs. a Book.” 23 Feb 2010. <> 5 May 2010.

“Amazon Kindle vs. the Book.”  Valleywag. 19 Nov 2007 5 May 2010.

Auletta, Ken.  “Publish or Perish.”  The New Yorker.  26 Apr 2010 5 May 2010.

Barker, Hayley.  “Kindle vs. Books.”  The Visual.  19 May 2009. 5 May 2010.

Brignull, Harry.  “Kindle vs Book.”  90 Percent of Everything: Experience Design, User Research, and Good Old Fashioned Usability.  21 Nov 2007.  5 May 2010.

“Caring for Your Paper and Books.”  Victoria and  Albert Museum.  5 May 2010.

Cornell University. “Manuscript to Print: the Evolution of the Medieval Book.” 26 Mar 2010.

Free Library of Philadelphia. “History: Founding, 1889-1898.” 26 Mar 2010.

Getty Exhibitions. “The Making of a Medieval Book.”  26 Mar 2010.

HQ Paper Maker.  “History of Paper.” 4 May 2010.

Jones, Bruce. Manuscripts, Books, and Maps: the Printing Press and a Changing World. “The Development of Print Technology.” 30 Jan 1997. 26 Mar 2010.

Kreis, Steven. “The Printing Press.” The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. 13 May 2004. 26 Mar 2010.

Mandell, Laura.  “What is the Matter?  Or, What Literary Theory Neither Hears nor Sees.”  New Literary History. Baltimore: Autumn 2007. Vol. 38, Iss. 4; pg. 755, 23 pgs  6 May 2010.

McGann, Jerome.  “Culture and Technology: The Way We Live Now, What Is to Be Done?”  New Literary History. Baltimore: Winter 2005. Vol. 36, Iss. 1; pg. 71, 12 pgs <> 6 May 2010.

Mott, Allan.  “Paper or Plastic?  The Book vs. Kindle Showdown.”  Bookgasm: Reading Material to Get Excited About.  22 Apr 2009.  <>  5 May 2010.

Paper Online.  “Timeline.” 4 May 2010.

Scalzi, John.  “Look at Me, I’m on the Cutting Edge.”  Whatever.  19 Nov 2007 5 May 2010.

Thattai, Deeptha. “A History of Public Education in the United States.”  26 Mar 2010.

Truitt, Elly. Class Notes. History 203: The High Middle Ages, Bryn Mawr College. 2 Sept 2008, 28 Oct 2008.

Utley, Brian.  “The Kindle and Why I’ll Stick to Bound Paper.”  52 Books in 52 Weeks. 12 March 2009. <>  5 May 2010.

Vaknin, Sam.  “Book Publishing: The Future of the Book Business.”  Publishing Central.  4 May 2010.

Wisconsin Paper Council.  “The Invention of Paper.”  4 May 2010.

Wolk-Stanley, Katy.  “Kindle vs. Books – The New Literary Battle.”  The Non-Consumer Advocate.  29 Jan 2010.  <>  5 May 2010.




rmeyers's picture

I really appreciated this

I really appreciated this history of printed works and reading online/ereaders, and the questions you ask, and wondered if you would also be interested in a (more) technical side of modern ebooks? Or whoever reads this... Charles Stross, who is both an author and a programmer/computer sciences major, describes the more technical side of publishing ebooks and their formats, here. If you are interested, it is just another facet of the deep history you've tapped here!