A modern copy of a Roman diptych filled with wax (the wooden stick should have been made of metal)




‘It’s not me, it’s you’ – this square is not tilted

© Christopher Haanes

First written in 2007,

English revised version

December 2021

A couple from Pompei, 79 BC, holding a diptych and a stylus
Early Roman cursive. Reed pen on papyrus.
Capitalis Rustica. Fragment known as the De Bellis Macedonicis. Late 1st – early 2nd century.
Codex Sinaiticus. Greek Bible. Middle to late 4th Century codex. The arrangement of text in columns similar to treatment in earlier scrolls.
Uncial letters. St. Cuthbert Gospel. 8th century.
Carolingian page from a Bible written at Tours, 825–850 AD.
The Diamond Sutra. 11 May 868, China. Woodblock-printed scroll
Mass printing with moveable lead types revolutionised book production.

Books, as we know them, inhabit our homes, and affect large parts of our cultural habitat. Text is reliant on readers, and the relationship between the text and the financial aspects of book production gives rise to extensive discussions and strife between authors and publishers, between critics and authors, between the publishers themselves and even between the authors and the readers.


Growing up without access to books is just a thought experiment for many, including myself. Many take them for granted. So many books are printed that each year thousands, if not millions of them are burned, in order to regulate the market.


In most instances the book is a vehicle for the text, a vessel or a servant, or in the words of Beatrice Warde, a transparent crystal glass where one may judge the wine simply because the vessel doesn’t intrude upon the content:


Type well used is invisible as type, just as the perfect talking voice is the unnoticed vehicle for the transmission of words, ideas. We may say, therefore, that printing may be delightful for many reasons, but that it is important, first and foremost, as a means of doing something. That is why it is mischievous to call any printed piece a work of art.



Certain types of books call for a treatment beyond the conventional, which applies particularly to special limited editions. Experimental books also have their place in the outskirts of the flora of books, but they are equally dependant on the skill and knowledge of the designer as regular editions. This applies to everything from typographic treatment to binding and print quality.


The Book, the codex form, has its roots in the scroll, like the Jewish Talmud or the Egyptian papyri sheets that were made into a long sheet and then rolled up. The book that we are familiar with today originated in Roman times. Two wooden plates (codex; lat. chunk of wood) were filled with wax and inscribed by a stylus (a pointed metal stick), and this would make a temporary container for the text. When the wax was rubbed by the round end of the stylus, it heated, and the text disappeared. This is called a diptych. The scribes wrote on papyrus or parchment (prepared animal skin), folded the sheets and put one on top of another. It is easy to imagine how these could be stitched together, and by putting these stitched sections between two wooden boards they were well protected. This type of binding, where the  sections are open in the back and sewn onto wooden boards with the spine exposed, is called a coptic binding. This was how the book, or codex, was born.


The transition from roll to codex happened between the 2nd and 4th centuries. The switch form papyri to parchment meant that books became more durable. Incidentally the word parchment has its name from the city Pergamon, which was a thriving center of parchment production during the Hellenistic period. Pliny the Elder’s story that parchment was ‘invented’ in Pergamon because Alexandria had monopolised papyrus it false, as parchment was in wide use in Anatolia and elsewhere long before this time.


The advantages of the codex over the roll were many: it was handier, more capacious, easier to consult, and it may have cost rather less to produce. Reference was made still easier by numbering the pages, and the addition of a list of contents guarded against forged interpolations and other interference with the text. These were important considerations in the days when much of life revolved around the authoritative texts of the Scriptures and the Code [between 2nd and 4th cent.]. The importance of the codex for religion and law is obvious. It had a relevance for literary texts too: a book which could hold the contents of several rolls meant that a corpus of related texts, or what was considered to be the best of an author’s work, could be put under one cover, and this was attractive to an age which was inclined to trim its intellectual heritage to a manageable form



Another advantage of the book concerns its physical appearance. A book is easy to carry, and takes up little room even when it is read. It is much easier to leaf back and forth in a book than in a scroll. The book has so many advantages that in principle it has existed in its present form since mid 2nd century AD. And there is plenty of software that mimics the structure of the book, to make the screen display more book-like.


The libraries of Alexandria (from 300 BC), Pergamon (from 200 BC) and the first Roman library (39 BC) collected and kept the rare written records of old times, and the total destruction of the library of Alexandria exemplifies the vulnerability of scrolls and codices at this time. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 400s, books continued their journey through Europe, helped by Christian monestaries, scribes and libraries.


The copying of texts by hand is no longer an everyday matter, and the calligraphy and scribal practice that was once an essential part of book production now has a narrow commercial use, although still alive as an art form, and as an underlying force in the design of type. But pre-Gutenberg this was the way that texts were spread. No calligraphy; no text. The often mesmerising illuminated initials often take the attention away from the text itself, even though the main text may have been written by a very skilled, anonymous scribe. We easily forget how vulnerable literature is to typos and mistakes in the copying process.

Charlemagne (lat. Carolus) saw the need to reform the entire production of manuscripts: Europe was full of diverging versions of ‘holy’ texts, misunderstandings and problems of interpretation was the rule of the day, an abbreviation from a Bible in one part of Europe could be read as a spelling mistake in another.


But as well as reforming the production of manuscripts and thereby improving upon the copying of Christian texts, the reforms had a positive impact on the calligraphy. The minuscule that had evolved at the scriptorium in Aachen and other places reached its peak at the scriptorium in Tours, under the Englishman Alcuin, and was named the Carolingian minuscule. The script spread to other monasteries and became a standard to aspire towards. Ironically, Charlemagne could barely write himself. The Carolingian minuscule would be the model for the littera antica almost half a century later, when the Renaissance scribes put Roman serifs on it and gave it the name littera antica (a weird name, as the Romans didn’t have minuscules). This became the model for the book types of the time and was also a spring board for italic, or cancelleresca.


Johannes Gensfleisch sum Gutenberg didn’t invent the art of printing. The Chinese Bi Sheng is attributed to printing with moveable type between 1041 and 1048, preceding Gutenberg with several hundred years. Previous to that, printed books existed, where the whole page was carved out of one block of wood, in the same manner that poor man’s Bibles and other religious ephemera was printed before Gutenberg came along.. The art of printing with moveable type is time saving, and eases the spread of information by making it faster and easier. Bi Sheng used clay, Gutenberg used lead types. After Bi Sheng, Wang Zhen (1260–1330) made the first moveable types out of wood.


Technological changes in book production have impacted their appearance. The possibilities offered by lithography and later offset printing, with regards to colour printing and the use of photography, has made the book a home to more than just text. It is a graphic medium rich with possibilities. Books exist in multiple genres, from text based novels to dictionaries, encyclopaedias, coffee-table books. Graphic traditions change, and some books will show clear influences from design schools and trends, something the Swiss use of grid systems testify to, as well as the asymmetry and use of sans serif typefaces the Bauhaus movement was known for. But still, most books we read are set in oldstyle fonts, and margins and column widths are often highly conventional. Reading habits, it would appear, die slower than trends and fashion whims.


In the world of Art, the phenomena known as ‘Artists Books’ has inspired many to create limited edition experimental books. It would be interesting to see good designers try similar experiments; fine artists rarely have basic typographic know-how. Perhaps an echo of the Art Deco period when artists largely made their own letters, where fanciful invention often took hold over good basic shape. Today, authors have access to typographic tools themselves, and chances are they will insist on typographic solutions that does’t gain their own text. This could apply to anything from choice of type to relationship of margins, headlines, bold instead of cursive, the skipping of the indented paragraph etc. We need better collaborations between good designers, authors and publishers.


Our books need less typos, less bad word breaks and poorly chosen fonts. Publishers, authors and designers now have access to typographic tools that ideally gives them more control of the typography than ever. Including spelling control and automated layout choices. But typography is often missing in the education of designers, resulting in too many poorly made books.  I can’t remember the last time I opened a book and was impressed by the typesetting of a title page or a table of contents.


A modern day publisher should keep at least some publications away from the commercialised hysteria the graphic design industry has forced them into: Give at least some books a literary and caring treatment based on sound typographic practice. Let books look like books and less than anything else.


[1] From the essay «The Crystal Goblet», Published under pseudonym Paul Grandjean. Warde was head of marketing for Monotype Corporation


[2] Scribes and Scholars, A guide to the transmission of Greek & Latin literature, L.D. Reynolds & N.G. Wilson, Oxford University Press 1968