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The Evolution of Books

October 29, 2009

Today I was working on a book on innovation that I’m co-authoring when I needed to look up how long books have been printed in their current form. Mass-produced words printed on paper in neat little lines of text. It seemed to me that the form hadn’t changed in a while, but I wasn’t sure how long.

600 years.

Let me say that again: 600 years. And that’s just the mass-printed book with movable type. Books were printed before that without movable type, and they were written down before that. In fact, if we look at the form of the novel, The Tale of Genji was written on a scroll in 1021…that’s 1000 years ago!

How in the world has this format remained unchanged for so long?

It’s actually a testament to the format that it hasn’t changed, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t. And sure, there are exceptions, like House of Leaves and The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, but they are by far the exception to the norm.

Sidenote: I love the following quote from a Powell’s interview with Spivet author Reif Larsen. Him breaking free from the 1,000-year confines of the novel structure is very freeing for me to read:

Another turning point in the writing of the book was moving from footnotes to marginalia, and using those arrows. I was really frustrated with the footnotes. I felt like Microsoft Word was handcuffing me, so I switched to Adobe InDesign. Suddenly the page opened up. I could draw the cartography of each page with those arrows.

One amazing thing to consider is that the form of the book was actually more interesting and better designed before typesetting. Consider medieval calligraphy and illuminations (bet you haven’t seen that word since fourth grade). Those monks really had something good going.

[Edit: To be fair, I didn’t mention graphic novels. They’re an interesting way to develop the concept of the novel. I’m more interested in some sort of hybrid between the old novel form and a graphic novel, though, than a purely graphic novel.)

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