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book review

A lively lesson in the anatomy and biography of the book

Author Keith HoustonCate Gillon

As readers know, books contain treasure. They are quiet packages of wonder. But what Keith Houston understands — and which he has now shared with us — is that the book itself is a marvel, an amazing invention millennia in the making that even now refuses to die. His aptly titled “The Book” is a delightful exploration of the global history and development of this great creation, filled with facts and trivia designed to entertain and enchant.

For bibliophiles, the treats begin on the cover. “The Book” reads the plain gray board, with a bracket establishing these two words as the title. The same explanatory treatment is given the subtitle (“A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time”) and the author, whose previous work, “Shady Characters,” traced the history of punctuation. And while none of this information may be new, the explication continues, identifying less commonly known terms like binding tape, hinge, foot, head, and fore-edge. Once inside, this exposition continues, from the endpapers through the colophon (“a single page at the back of the book named after the Greek word for ‘summit,’ or ‘finishing touch,’ ” we learn). In this closing matter, which actually runs three pages, the creative process of this particular book is covered as well, from its font (“11 point Adobe Jenson Pro Light”) through its printing at a factory in Guangdong Province, China.


But “The Book” is far more than merely a compendium of terms or historical facts. It’s more of a love story; in a fond and conversational tone Houston traces the origins not only of many of these terms but of the physical forms themselves. Recounting both legend and documented archaeological evidence, he tracks the development of paper, from Egyptian papyrus through parchment to rag paper, and then doubles back, looking at a possibly parallel evolution in China, where mulberry bark was used. He then moves into text, exploring the development of writing — and of our understanding of writing, from the earliest misinterpretations of cuneiform and hieroglyphs to a more current appreciation of ancient sophistication. Illustrations (of which there are many beautiful examples) are given the same treatment, from the illumination of manuscripts through lithography and beyond, as is “Form,” a catchall term that covers bookbinding and page size, bringing us to the contemporary object.

Along the way, Houston points out those remnants that have stayed with us. For example, in his discussion of movable type (not invented by Gutenberg, by the way), he notes that “printers placed their capital letters in one case, arranged according to the frequency of their use, while lowercase letters were placed into, well, a lower case below the first.”


Although the research that has gone into this tome (“after the Greek tomos, ‘to cut,’ ” because the pages were cut so they could be bound) is impressive, this is not dry history. Houston has a storyteller’s voice and plumps out the facts with anecdotes. After detailing William Bullock’s development of a steam-powered rotary press, for example, he notes: “Unfortunately, today William Bullock is remembered for the manner of his demise as much as for his invention. In 1867, Bullock’s leg was caught and mangled by one of his own presses; gangrene set in . . . ” Always a completist, Houston adds the following intriguing parenthetical: “(Some versions of the tale say that Bullock was injured when he tried to kick a recalcitrant drive belt back onto a pulley.)” It is perhaps needless to say that all these stories, both facts and rumors, are meticulously documented in 62 pages of notes.


If Houston’s masterwork has any drawback, it is that it is too complete. By the time he gets to the history of page sizing, returning once again to Egyptian papyrus, the history begins to drag. Not that Houston repeats anything — even after 300 pages, his subject is hardly exhausted. But when he notes “Papyrus does not have a hair side or a flesh side, of course,” the reader might be tempted to go, “Yes, yes, we know this.”

But we wouldn’t have — or not most of it — were it not for this masterful and overwhelmingly entertaining volume, both an homage to the book and one itself to be cherished by readers everywhere.


A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time

By Keith Houston

Norton, 428 pp., illustrated, $29.95

Clea Simon, a novelist and freelance writer, can be reached at