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The Codex Book

Research Report by Robin Chin
(created 1/30/06; version 1.0)

Related Categories: Hardware Innovations, History of Reading

Original Object for Study description

The codex form of book — a “sheaf of bound pages”[1] — became prevalent in Europe over the previously popular format of the scroll sometime around the fifth century A.D. In its inception and subsequent technical improvements, the codex revolutionized modern thought to include, among other things, a new understanding of individual and informative portability – through space, likewise through time. Increased efforts at portability of the codex not only directly added to the spread of literacy to different economic classes, but also contributed to changes in the format of writing towards the use of academic research and towards general “user-friendliness.” Notably, such technical developments mirror, or at least relate to recent concerns and trends in personal computing, including but not limited to the size and appearance of computer hardware, the layout and graphic design of web pages, and interface design of computer software.

The physical form of the book has gone through a series of stark changes of the approximately five thousand-year course of its history. For more than the last fifteen hundred years, however, its most popular format has been that of the codex — a covered and bound collection of pages. Within only a few hundred years of its inception, the codex book (then paged with treated animal skin, or parchment) gained dominance over the previously popular format of the papyrus scroll. In particular, the scroll lacked the codex’s advantages of (1) convenient transport, (2) easy accessibility to any part of a text and (3) the ability while reading any part of the text to hold it in its entirety.[2] Thus from approximately 400 A.D. and onward, the codex held and holds its near monopoly over the book format.

Still the codex itself has not been without its own history of technical development, specifically with regard to the improvement of its aforementioned portability. Early codices, for instance, though more portable than scrolls, were nonetheless large and cumbersome compared to the codices today. This was for the most part the result of the folio and quarto formats of early codex books, which would give way to smaller octavo, duodecimo, and sextodecimo formats in the following centuries – shrinking with the increased demand for handheld books and, even later, pocketsize books. The reduction in the size of the book in turn demanded improvements in, among many things, the layout of text, the style of script, the material type and quality of page, and the composition of ink. Thus even before the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in the fifteenth century, the codex had undergone a series of substantial shifts towards portability and, consequently, further dissemination.

After Gutenberg, however, the codex reached even greater heights, encouraged by a fast-growing readership that included not only the elite, but also lower economic classes previously unable to afford the luxury of book ownership. In the new age of reading that followed, the creation of codex books evolved into a competitive business enterprise, in which vying printers marketed advancements in the portability, durability and/or disposability, and the “user-friendliness” of the codex. As such, books became less coveted symbols of wealth than intellectual tools and/or means of entertainment. By the eighteenth century, the pocketsize codex book transported the practice of reading to the out of doors, giving a public, if ephemeral, character to the book that culminated in the twentieth century with advent of the modern paperback.

Research Context:
Generally speaking, the subject of codex construction and development falls into the research context of media studies, or what noted scholar W.J.T Mitchell identifies broadly as the field of “visual culture”[3]. Indeed, descriptions of the codex’s appearance and evolution appear routinely as part of the history of modern literacy, and are relevant research for the field’s sub-histories such as those of writing, the book, paper, printing, etc. However, in consideration of the technical innovation directly involved in the direction of codex development towards (1) user-friendliness and (2) increased portability, it may be suggested that codex history has, and is valued in the separate research context of engineering and computer software/hardware design.

Technical Analysis:
In the long history of the codex’s craft, an advanced terminology has developed around the specification of its various parts, its methods of construction, and the devices of its construction (See John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors). Important to discussion of portability above, for example, are terms such as folio, quarto, octavo, duodecimo, and sextodecimo, all of which designate a specific number of times in which a sheet of papyrus, parchment, or paper is folded in order to create a particular size and shape of a codex’s pages (respectively, one, two, three, three ,[4] and four folds).

In terms of the technical and present significance of the historical development of the codex, it has been suggested by critics such as Roger Chartier and James O’Donnell that the revolution of the scroll-to-codex transformation has its value to the modern evaluation of the codex-to-screen transformation, or computer revolution. Indeed, developments in the history of the computer likewise suggest the desire for increased portability (through time and space alike with the advents of the PC, laptop, and internet) and user-friendliness. From this perspective, the future of the computing with regard to the practices of reading and writing lies continuous with the portable or “universal” agenda of the codex, scroll, and other historical writing media.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
As mentioned previously, the study of the history of the book, with and without regard to the issue of portability, has already garnered considerable attention from bibliophiles, media scholars, and others interested in the ramifications of early widespread literacy. Several critics such have, for example, analyzed the codex’s development as a crucial step in the evolution of modern reading practices and, consequently, in the “evolution” of the mind towards the conventions of modern thought.

At the same time, however, the subject of portability itself is yet ripe for examination by the Transliteracies Project in its wide thematic applicability to past and current advancements in media technologies. With such portable trends as the telephone-to-cell phone and the desktop-to-laptop computer literally at hand, a new culture of continuous communication and media multitasking becomes of visible issue to various aspects of society. New literacy practices most certainly face the effects of this desire for increased informative portability and efficiency.

Notably, however, the portability topic is still limited by the immaterial abstraction of new portable trends, where informative portability breaks its corporeal connection to the object. While this act improves portability of information through one aspect of time/space, it risks yet the loss of such information for its disembodiment with the physical. The acceptable or unacceptable nature of this hazard remains a steady debate in the realms of the humanities and information sciences.

Resources for Further Study:

  • Bellis, Mary. “History of Laptop Computers.” Webpage. 22 Jan 2006. http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/bllaptop.htm
  • Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors. Revised by Nicholas Barker. 7th ed. Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 1995.
  • Chappell, Warren. A Short History of the Printed Word. Edited by Robert Bringhurst. Vancouver: Hartley & Marks Publishers, Inc., 1999.
  • Chartier, Roger. Forms and Meanings: Texts Performances, and Audience from Codex to Computer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
  • Einstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 983.
  • Freudenrich, Craig. “How Laptops Work.” Webpage. 22 Jan 2006. http://www.laptopworldwide.com/ri/howlaptopswork/fact.htm
  • Illich, Ivan. In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary on Hugh’s “Didascalion.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Kopplin, John. “An Illustrated History of Computers.” 2002. Webpage. 23 Jan 2006. http://www.computersciencelab.com/ComputerHistory/History.htm
  • Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading. New York: Viking Press, 1996.
  • O’Donnell, James J. Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyperspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    End Notes

    [1]Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading. New York: Viking Press, 1996. 126.

    [2]Ibid. 126-7.

    [3]Mitchell, W.J.T. The Visual Cultures Reader. Edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1998. 51.

    [4]While the octavo and duodecimo sheets are both folded three times, they are folded in such different manners as to produce a different number and size of pages.

  tl, 01.30.06

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