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The Rise of Fast Books or Instant Mash Ain’t Mashed Potatoes

Last week, Dan posted a few notes on bookbinding in which he wondered about the swiftness of the 19-century binding in reference to the Coptic and Gothic ones we had learned in the previous days. After musing whether technology or technique (method) had changed, he states: “in this case it isn’t clear that it is the technology that improved but the method.”

When I first read that, it shocked me a bit. Although I am pretty sure he didn’t realize what he was implying, his use of the word “improve” seems to apply to the speed at which the final book was put together rather than anything else. This struck me as a neo-capitalist judgement of history.

Firstly, I would like to point out the inadequacy of suggesting that because something is faster, that makes it necessarily better or represents an improvement over a previous form. Instant mash ain’t mashed potatoes.

Not taking into consideration the fact that we had become better at sewing pages or that we didn’t have to prepare the quires for the final book, or that this was, in essence, less than a third in size in comparison with the other styles, there are other issues we need to contend with.

Secondly, a quick comparison of the three different sewing styles reveals the comparative strength of the Coptic and Gothic books in reference to their 19-century counterpart. Moreover, the Gothic book, which we did on paper, would have previously been made using parchment, which would have made it even stronger and more durable.

It is said that when Alfred the Great was a child, his mother offered a book as a prize to the first one of her sons to memorize it. Asser tells us that Alfred won the book. As an anecdote, this is puzzling because we tend to think that once a text is memorized, there is little point in possessing the codex that contains it. If this anecdote were true, we would have to understand that the book was more than its text: it represented something else.

Another anecdote: Plutarch tells us that when Alexander went on his campaign to conquer India, he kept, under his pillow, a copy of the Iliad Aristotle had annotated for him. The man who was planning on taking over the world considered this book of the utmost importance.

Before the mechanical press, books were expensive and even more so when there were handwritten in vellum or parchment. A large bifolio of 500 pages would have required 250 cows, sheep, or goat. Just the cost of that little herd would have represented a considerable expense. This, together with the handwriting process, the illumination, and the binding, would have amounted to a small fortune. It seems natural to want to make the best possible product when the expense is as significant as this would have been.

The difference between the sewing in the Coptic and Gothic books and that of their 19-century cousin is that the latter is a much-simplified version of the formers. It serves the same function but is flimsier and more fragile. But so is the rest of the codex. Although 19-century prints are, on average, sturdier and more durable than our contemporary codices, it seems clear that they are already on a path that is very different from that of medieval or ancient manuscripts.

My working hypothesis is that the simplification of the sewing method for mechanical press books, together with other less expensive options implemented during the binding process, responds to the massification of print. In other words, the methodological changes respond to the emergence of a capitalist book market for which production is faster and cheaper, but also less concerned with durability. If we take this further, we can see that most wood pulp (highly acidic) paperbacks today are really meant to be read once or twice before being tossed aside.

In the end, the pressures of a system in which books are no longer costly objecs d’art in their own right, produced with intricate craftsmanship to ensure the preservation of knowledge or creative achievement, pushes towards consumerism (something that was also promoted by lengthy works for which authors were paid by the word and which were published in fascicles).

We can see 19-century binding methods as a symptom of a society that is beginning to change towards an all-consuming machine of which Tik Tok is just the latest publishing place of trash content.

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