by Wanderer Werewolf
©2008 Wanderer Werewolf

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   When you stop to consider the history of portable information, it’s impossible not to focus on the book; books, after all, have been around (in various forms) since recorded history began. Yet, not only have the books and their forms changed, but they’ve changed the written language itself.
   The earliest books were likely written on vegetable matter—paper, wood, bark fiber, bamboo, and so on. Not only are such materials among the easiest to use, but the first words for ‘book’ are evidence in their favor:
   biblio (Greek): A roll of papyrus, likely after Byblos, a city in Canaan, renamed after papyrus by the Greeks. (Its true name was Gebal.)
   libri (Latin): Literally, the inner bark of a tree.
   book: From the German bok, formed from the root of the word, ‘beech’.
   The earliest preserved written works, however, are the Cuneiform tablets from Nineveh, capital of ancient Mesopotamia. These were carved into clay tablets, which were then baked in order to preserve their contents. These were mostly government records, however; while they contain some information about religion and history, most of them are court cases, legal precedent, and imperial decrees. (It’s a little like reading a transcript of C-Span.) Clay tablets, after all, are hardly portable; before baking, they ‘smudge’ easily, and after baking, they become fragile.
   Cuneiform was itself influenced by developments in presentation; originally a top-to-bottom writing style of straight strokes arranged in pictograms, it was changed (around the 30th Century B.C.) to a left-to-right style, rotating all of the signs through 90 degrees to match the new presentation. The wedge-shaped strokes known to scholars were the result of another change; somewhere, someone realized that a language made of short, sharp lines could be written with a simple chisel-shaped tool instead of a reed pen. Over time, up until the 6th Century B.C. (when it was made extinct by Aramaic), the language continued to develop, very nearly becoming a true spelling alphabet like our own. Punctuation, however, was non-existent; ideas were set off by column or row, separated into boxes of simple lines.
   (As a side note, the reason for the shift from vertical to horizontal is reasonably simple: As scrolls came into use, horizontal reading was easier to hold in the hands. Likewise, left-to-right keeps your hands out of the drying clay or ink… well, unless you’re left-handed, of course.)
   The Romans made what could be considered an important leap in the book’s history: The pugillare (from pugnus, ‘fist’, because it could be held in one hand), a wax-coated wooden tablet that was used much as we use notepads and scrap paper today. Words and images could be scratched into the wax with the pointed end of a stylus, while the rounded part at the other end would be used to ‘erase’ by smoothing out the wax, creating a ‘palimpsest’ (from the Greek palin (again) and psen (to rub smooth)). (Sooner or later, of course, you’d have to melt the wax slightly to further smooth it, or even re-coat the board.) For those who needed something akin to a notebook, however, more ‘pages’ would be required; these were provided by binding a number of pugillares along their left edge. This produced what the Romans rather humorously dubbed a ‘block of wood’, or codex, a word which today means “a book containing other works”.
   Punctuation, alas, had no corresponding flowering. At this point in the history, most languages had only two punctuation marks: The comma and the period. Moreover, the Mesopotamian boxes had faded away, resulting in sentences jammed chock-a-block against one another; since lower-case letters had yet to be developed, and indentation had not yet arrived on the scene, this made most writing rather difficult to read. There’s a reason most people had to sound out their sentences…
   (Another side note: In the days before widespread printed communication, punctuation was anything but standardized. The Mesha Stele (in 9th-Century Moabite) uses dots between words and horizontal strokes between sentences; the 5th-Century Greek plays, needing some way to instruct the actors, had early forms of the comma (a dot in the center of the line), colon (a dot at the base of the line) and period (dot at the top of the line), in order to represent three different lengths of pause.)
   The scroll, however, remained popular. Held in the hands (horizontally, as a rule; as mentioned, holding it vertically makes it hard to handle), it could be rolled or unrolled to any length, and remained the most portable form of reading for some time. (Not that that’s saying much; the word ‘scroll’, meaning “scrap” or “slice”, originally referred to one page of a total book, called by the Latin volumen, a word which gives us ‘volume’ (book), ‘volume’ (the space occupied by a mass) and ‘voluminous’ (occupying a large amount of space), as well as ‘revolve’ (turn). A volumen tended to be about thirty feet (10 meters) long, with some ancient specimens reaching over 120 feet (40 meters) in length.) They tended to be quite impressive, as well; rolled around a knobbed rod, with a small leather tag at the top, some were even installed in a manuale to keep hands off the material; these would shield the scroll inside a round casing of wood, stiffened leather or metal, with a grip on the held end of the scroll and a handle for rewinding it into the case.
   The problems, however, limited its popularity. Not only did you have to unroll it past every page in order to reach the right scroll in your volumen, but there was no way to mark your place, and no way to set it down without risking damage to the material. Finally, papyrus was fragile; while it could last a long time in Egypt’s dry climate (the most ancient papyrus scroll in Egypt is believed to be almost 5,000 years old), any place with higher humidity would see the material decay in short order. After all, papyrus is nothing but thin sheets of river reeds. (Likewise, because you could only write on one side of the fragile material, it doubled the page count of every work.)
   Enter: Parchment.
   Oh, writing on skins had been around a long time, even if it didn’t give its name to books. (Unless you spoke Ionian Greek, anyway: diphtherai means ‘skins’ and ‘books’ in that language.) But when papyrus prices climbed in the 5th Century B.C., the library of Pergamum (in what is now Turkey), said to have rivaled that of Alexandria at its peak, was threatened. As Egypt canceled papyrus exports in order to conserve their over-harvested reed crops, Pergamum’s king Eumenes authorized a project to perfect skins for writing; the result was a stiff animal skin with a light color, suitable for easy writing and much more durable than papyrus.
   Alas, it was also more expensive. Only so much of an animal can really be used for parchment, after all, and the better quality could only be achieved by using younger, smaller animals. Because of this, three cost-saving measures were adapted:
   1. Both sides of the material were used for writing. Impossible for thin, fragile papyrus, but no problem at all for parchment.
   2. This allowed a more efficient use of the codex form; where two wax surfaces would merge and blur, two pages of parchment didn’t have that problem, allowing books to become smaller and easier to carry. After all, they now used half the number of pages to contain the same amount of text. (This caused the expected outcry among contemporary critics, who declared that modern writings, taking advantage of the greater room, used more words to say less. Ah, the more things change…) In addition, a codex could be laid flat; the central spine of the binding allowed you to keep your place without a set of scroll weights (like tablecloth weights for picnics), an assistant, or a special scroll frame. (It also wasn’t long before some bright fellow in history created the incipit, or ‘beginning’, the first few words written on the spine. In the days before works were generally given titles, this meant you no longer had to worry about misplaced scroll tags, and could figure out what was in a book without ever pulling it off the shelf. Plus, codices stack neatly in rows and columns; a vast improvement over the vast bins of scrolls in the ancient libraries.)
   3. Finally, the more durable parchment allowed re-use, simply by scraping the ink away with a knife. These re-used parchments, called palimpsests in a further revival of the pugillares, still retained imprints, however (a principle familiar to anyone who ever experimented with pencil rubbings on a notepad). Because of this, even some discarded documents have managed to survive to the present day.
   This was a vast improvement, but it still limited the number of books available, by cost if nothing else. Still, punctuation managed to take off, with St. Jerome’s Bible (written for the priests to read aloud from) expanding the collection to include early forms of the question mark (/) and exclamation point(|).
   And then… paper. It had been merely a curiosity in its early days in China, when it was too fragile to hold writing on both sides; no stronger than papyrus, it was mostly used for notepaper (8th Century BC) wrapping paper (2nd Century BC), and even toilet paper (Europe used leaves) and facial tissues (like our modern Kleenex); it entered the medieval era as tea bags and paper cups.
   But then, Persia got hold of it (they captured a paper mill in the Tenth Century), and figured out that, with the right additions to the process, you could make a tougher, stronger paper. Sure, they had to move the mill to Cairo when the Crusades came through in the Twelfth Century… but Cairo passed it to Spain, and mass production began.
   Suddenly, bookbinders had something they’d always wanted: A material that was tough, cheap, and capable of holding writing on both sides! Expensive parchment faded quickly as cheap books began bringing literature and science texts within reach of the masses; by the time Johannes Gutenberg developed his movable-type printing press (as opposed to earlier versions, which had a page carved in a solid block), most of his Bibles would be printed on cheap, available paper.
   Movable, standardized type prompted more punctuation, as well. Quotation marks developed as a means of telling when people were speaking in the text, now that all of the letters were the same size; italic text was developed to reduce the number of pages and make books more portable; lower-case letters developed in imitation of the quickly-written pen-strokes of handwriting; indenting helped the reader to know when an idea ended and began. Books with more than one work quickly acquired tables of contents and indices, allowing readers to go directly to the section they wanted.
   By the Sixteenth Century, books almost identical to the modern were available, and the format has remained essentially unchanged ever since. Even the modern Kindle e-reader makes concessions to book format in its page separations and formatting.
   Someday, perhaps, books will change again. Perhaps. But in my opinion, it will be a long time before anyone materially improves upon the simple codex and its components.
   Now (whew), how is this important to the gamer? Consider:


   Hard to read, isn’t it? All capital letters, with non-standard (by modern standards) punctuation, does not make for easy understanding, even before the lack of standardized spacing confuses the reader. Then, of course, the apostrophe didn’t come in until rather later, particularly for the possessive and plural; this made for some interesting constructions…
   “What? But it says, ‘Your treasure shall be that of a dragon’!”
   “Yes, and some dragon somewhere is very happy right now…”
   And then you hit synonyms…
   “But the scroll called it the maiden tower! That means it’s run by women, right?”
   “No, that means no man has ever penetrated it.”
   “That’s a dirty joke…”

   In our next issue, I’ll examine the common calendar—including a rather interesting piece of history which is unduly little-known!

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