Ordained Servant Online



The Book by Keith Houston

T. David Gordon

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, by Keith Houston. W. W. Norton & Company, 2016, xvii + 428.

Both reviewers and readers of Houston’s The Book will be tempted to compare it to Elizabeth Eisenstein’s 1980 two-volume The Printing Press as an Agent of Change; and each will quickly get over the temptation. Eisenstein’s volume was political and economic in nature (concerned primarily with the sociological changes associated with and influenced by the industrialized production of printed books); Houston’s is technological in nature (concerned primarily with the various inventions and developments in the history of the making of books). Eisenstein was primarily interested in the fifteenth century (a synchronic study); Houston is interested in the over-four-millennia period that brought us to our current place (a diachronic study). Each is exhaustive; only Eisenstein was exhausting. I was (pleasantly) surprised at how interesting Houston’s narrative is, almost embarrassed at how hard it was to put down. Students of human civilization will enjoy Houston’s book, even if (prior to now) they had no particular interest in book-formation, because his tracing of the series of human actions—mistakes, intrigue, good fortune (and bad), good intentions (and worse), hard work, sloth, obsequiousness, ambition, greed, and more—has nearly the insight of a Tolstoy novel, with little of the dreariness.

The historian David McCullough has often written about or around (non-) discoveries or (non-) inventions: the Johnstown flood, the Panama Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge, American painting and sculpture, etc., and yet has woven throughout such narratives many fascinating sub-narratives of human interest. Houston does the same, choosing The Book as the organizing meta-narrative. In the process, he appears to have as much fun as an uncle does in inventing a bed-time story for nephews and nieces. The reader encounters wryness where he expected dryness, play where he expected gray:

In 2009, in an apparent attempt to carry out the world’s most ironic act of censorship, Amazon silently deleted certain editions of George Orwell’s 1984 from their owners’ Kindles as part of a copyright dispute, and news outlets continue to report on the plight of readers whose e-books have vanished without warning.… pluck a physical book off your bookshelf now. Find the biggest, grandest hardback you can. Hold it in your hands. Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue. Smell it! Flip through the pages and feel the breeze on your face. An e-book imprisoned behind the glass of a table or computer screen is an inert thing by comparison. (xvi)

If book-lovers are not already interested, consider the concluding words from Houston’s introduction:

This book is about the history and the making and the bookness of all those books, the weighty, complicated, inviting artifacts that humanity has been writing, printing, and binding for more than fifteen hundred years. It is about the book that you know when you see it. (xvii, paraphrasing Justice Potter Stewart)

My own interest in Houston’s work was and is four-fold: I am an academic, whose most frequent companions are books; I am a (Protestant) practitioner and clergyman of the religion that the Qur’an calls “the People of the Book”; I teach an introduction to Media Ecology—the discipline that studies the influence of various media on individual consciousness and on social structures and behavior; and I am an impenitent example of what C. S. Lewis referred to as a “literary type” of individual. If you are any of these, Houston is for you; if you are not, why are you reading a book review anyway?

In fifteen chapters, Houston gives thorough, detailed, yet engaging coverage of: the invention of papyrus, parchment, and paper; and the development of writing and alphabet(s), illuminated manuscripts, woodcuts, copperplate printing, lithography, photography, papyrus scrolls and wax tablets, the codex, and book-binding. He identifies where many or most of the skeletons are, and what many or most of the competing claims are for who invented what (and when and where). Throughout, he resists the simplifications and self-congratulations that so many of us have been taught (and, in my case, have mistakenly taught). In the process, he challenges many of our prejudices, and not a few of our sensibilities:

Gutenberg was not the father of printing so much as its midwife. (114)

Papyrus’s usefulness in bookmaking, in fact, was only one of the many forces that drove its journey: of equal, if not greater importance, were humanity’s parallel obsessions with religion, war, and underpants. (56)

Though the Qur’an referred to Christians as “People of the Book,” the crusaders burned books as readily as they did heretics. (56)

In 1719, de Réaumur regaled the French Royal Academy with an account of his travels to the New World, where he had observed wasps making papery nests out of chewed wood pulp. Might not these industrious insects be emulated in order to make real paper? (68)

[Correcting those who over-estimate the pious devotion of medieval scribes, such as this anonymous one]: Writing is excessive drudgery.… It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.… Thank God, it will soon be dark. (166)

[Houston referred to the 1896 discovery of the Oxyrhunchus Papyri as] . . . one particular episode of archaeological dumpster-diving. (261)

Books are rectangular because cows, goats, and sheep are rectangular too. (312)

In addition to such striking language, Houston gives full, interesting, and nuanced accounts of many events with which we are already somewhat familiar, such as the making of papyrus, parchment, rag-based paper, wood-pulp paper, the development of ink, the several printing presses that antedated Gutenberg’s (many readers will be surprised to learn that, between printing Ars grammatica and the Bible, Gutenberg printed two thousand indulgences for Pope Nicholas V), the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, etc.

The Book is itself sumptuously produced, and includes many pertinent and helpful illustrations, rich bibliographical annotations, and a helpful index. Any work of this size (sixty-five pages of notes) is bound to have an occasional small mistake,[1] but they rare in this superb book.

Readers of Ordained Servant are already firm believers in God’s providential dealings,[2] and most have already recognized how crucial that providence was when it culminated in the printing of Gutenberg’s Bible, without which our great formative principle of Sola Scriptura would have made little practical sense. Houston’s narrative, however, assists us in seeing how remarkable God’s providence was for well over a millennium before Gutenberg’s time (though Houston himself betrays no religious opinions at all). In fact, as a lifelong lover of books, and a lover and minister of the Holy Scriptures, I am inclined to think that this extraordinary narrative that culminated in the printing and widespread distribution of the Bible was not an “ordinary providence” at all, but an extraordinary one.

Endnotes

[1] I happened to notice that when he mentioned the standard introduction, The Birth of the Codex (1954), he refers to “T. C. Roberts and C. R. Skeat,” giving each of their initials to the other’s surname.

[2] WCF 5.3: “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.”

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2017.

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