book

Early Books

Early in the history of bookmaking the printed book was distinguished in size by the number of times the original large sheet of paper on which the type was printed had been folded, i.e., folio, quarto, octavo, and duodecimo. With the advent of machine-made paper, these sizes were standardized. The standard octavo, according to the American Library Association, is between 20 cm and 25 cm in height.

Books apparently did not come into existence until long after writing, e.g., inscription, was widespread. Fragmentary early papyri represent literature in ancient Egypt and may possibly be considered as books, although it is customary to speak of the Book of the Dead as the first of the Egyptian papyrus books. The cuneiform tablets gathered into the great Assyrian library of Assurbanipal represented an enormous collection of works, but the book as we know it may be said to be derived from the Egyptian writings on papyrus.

The vast literature of the Greeks, collected in the greatest library of the ancient world, in Alexandria, was generally written on large sheets of papyrus, which were glued together and rolled up. The rolls varied greatly in size; many were about 1 ft (30 cm) wide and about 30 ft (9 m) long when unrolled. In the Hellenistic era large works were divided into tomes [Gr., = cutting] that were stored together in cylinders and labeled.

The method of having the leaves held together in quires (24 or 25 sheets) in the fashion of the modern book seems not to have originated until about the 2d cent. A.D. From at least the early part of the 2d cent. B.C. the more permanent vellum (a type of fine parchment first used in the Middle East) was also used for writing books, and this grew to be very popular in the Middle Ages when books were copied by monks in the scriptoria of monasteries. In the scriptoria the art of illumination flourished, making artistic masterpieces of many medieval liturgical volumes.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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