When paging through a splendid, friendly volume like the new Getty publication Books: A Living History by Martyn Lyons, it's natural to wonder if his work is an expression of enthusiasm or elegy.
All of human history has been shaped by books in their various forms, and for ages, the human life of the mind has been unthinkable without them. Yet, the printed book is under pressures it's never felt before, and for the first time in its 500-year history, it is beginning to look endangered.
They've survived despite many and obvious design flaws. The earliest books were cuneiform tablets created by the ancient Sumerians, probably to store the records of temple accounts and financial transactions, they were scarcely portable and not amendable, and their private ownership could only be very limited. In ancient Egypt, Lyons speculates, probably only one per cent of the population could read. Durability was sacrificed for lighter weight and greater manipulability when papyrus and vellum replaced stone, but fire `and damp became dangers, and ownership was still dear. Roman scholars like Cicero and Statius could amass collections of books in the form of scrolls ("ancient Rome was saturated with writing," Lyons tells us), which were easy to store and duplicate but cumbersome to read (try it sometime - you'll marvel that any ancient had the wherewithal - to say nothing of the wrist-strength - to become well-read). With the advent of the codex in the second century AD, the book as modern western audiences recognise it came into being: a stack of facing pages bound at the left-hand margin. These too began as precious (and often physically ponderous) objects, made at great cost for relatively few users, but at last a form had been created that could be produced, transported and annotated with comparative ease. "The scroll had to be held in both hands," Lyons points out, "whereas the codex liberated the reader to use his or her spare hand to take notes or to hold a drink."
From those earliest bound books, Lyons, one of the foremost working historians of book history and a very genial guide, takes readers on a tour of the incredibly colourful and varied history of his chosen subject (the colour part is infinitely aided by the hundreds of shrewdly chosen illustrations throughout). There are short inserts on entertaining niche topics such as "The Life of a Scribe," "The Book of Kells", or the 17th century "Dutch miracle" - referring to the brief window during which Holland became a "publishing powerhouse". There are mini-dissertations on sacred Buddhist texts, The Tale of Genji, the ever-expanding complexity of atlases, the Inquisition, and the fascinating print histories of such works as Don Quixote and such authors as Sir Walter Scott. As his narrative moves forward, Lyons reaches the Enlightenment and the advent of a predatory and revelatory new animal on the book scene: "Until the early 19th century, the jobs of publishing, printing and bookselling had not been distinguished and many individuals combined all three functions. Now the publisher had arrived ...
"Successful publishers were self-made entrepreneurs with creative skills, independence and an appetite for risk-taking," Lyons recounts, pointing to the mid-19th century rise of such influential figures as the Levy brothers in France and the publishing houses of Macmillan, Murray, and Longmans in Great Britain, as well as Karl Baedeker's famous travel guides in Germany. The adoption of business models and the proliferation of printing technology led to the spread of bookstores and the rise of circulating and lending libraries - often looked upon as a mixed blessing at best: "Despite the elegance of the buildings, local residents did not always relish the prospect of a public library in their neighbourhood, as it brought working-class and black customers into sedate middle-class districts."
Always, Lyons' story moves closer to those very same working-class readers. A general per capita rise in discretionary spending income on the part of so many populaces in the East and West in the wake of the Renaissance helped suddenly cheap, mass-produced printed books find their way to a far greater audience. In modern times, as Lyons notes, publishers such as Hachette, Verlag, and Penguin made a speciality out of affordable paperbacks designed to reach a wider audience than books had ever known. "The financial success of the paperback revolution," Lyons writes, "lay not in the inexpensive cover and binding but in the huge economies of scale that could be achieved from long print runs."