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In praise of books

Published on -12/15/2013, 3:21 PM

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I always have loved books. I love their feel, their solidity. I love their heady mixture of scents -- paper, ink, sometimes leather, even dust. I love to walk the stacks of a library, looking at the titles, removing the occasional book for closer inspection. Books are my constant companions.

I own cookbooks and prayer books, scholarly books and books for fun, books for reference, and books that just look nice in the bookcase. When I was a child, I would get out of going to school as often as possible so I could stay home and read. At school, I would sometimes miss group activities because I was absorbed in reading a book.

I could not, and cannot, live without books.

Few people realize books are a relatively modern invention. Around the fifth century, when Christianity spread from Rome to northern Europe, monks invented books for educational purposes (to teach other monks to read and write and to help them convert and teach local populations everything from agriculture to medicine).

The invention of the book parallels our modern progress from tape to digital technology. The ancient world knew only scrolls, rolls of parchment (sheepskin) or papyrus (reed). This made it difficult to look anything up, since, as with a tape, you had to scroll through the document to find the desired information. Like CDs and computer files, books are more practical, since they enable you to go directly to the right place.

Many Medieval manuscripts are beautiful as well as instructive. Scribes unused to reading and writing seem to have viewed the characters on the leaf (manuscript page) as works of art in themselves (since everything was in Latin, only experienced monks could read well enough to know what the words meant). But scribes embellished margins and capital letters with all kinds of doodles--angels, devils, animals and plants. Sometimes they wrote down poetry from oral tradition for practice in handwriting--these treasures occasionally turn up, recycled as padding in leather manuscript covers. Later, artists decorated biblical stories and Books of Hours with sumptuous illustrations, using gold leaf and other precious materials. Later still, during periods when wealthy lay people could afford a library, elaborate manuscripts of love poetry, Arthurian and heroic narratives appeared.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, paper began to replace parchment, and the price of ink went down. This enabled the newly emerging merchant class to afford books.

These people had to learn how to read and write so they could conduct their businesses.

But the big breakthrough in book production occurred circa 1450, when Johann Gutenberg invented moveable type. Prior to this, printers had to cut a new block print for every page or small group of pages. Gutenberg's press, a frame into which letters quickly could be set, then removed to be replaced by others, made printing large numbers of longer books practical. This made books, therefore education, accessible to nearly everyone.

It also promoted the development of standard written languages because printers could sell their books over a larger area if they avoided local dialects.

I welcome the convenience and effectiveness of digital technology, but think the world will be greatly impoverished if books, physical and intellectual documents of the history of our civilization, ever fall into disuse and decay.

Ruth Firestone, Hays, is a frequent contributor to The Hays Daily News.

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