i s   i t   a   b o o k ?
"Philosophy is perfectly right in saying that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other clause--that it must be lived forwards."
- Søren Kierkegaard (as translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong)
For most of us the word "book" presents a visual image of multiple planes, covered and bound together on one side and viewed by turning one page at a time and reading the text from top to bottom and left to right. This is not how it has always been, nor, necessarily how it will be in the future.
The nonlinear visual book has been a part of communication history since the beginning of human life. In terms of the visual transmission of ideas, there are many examples. Before codified systems of writing, objects were decorated or modified in such a way as to communicate a message. In the earliest recorded Western history Herodotus tells a story in which the Scythian ruler sent several objects to the Persian King Darius. The objects conveyed a message which could be interpreted in various ways - they were representations of a bird, a mouse, a frog and seven arrows. The objects were interpreted simultaneously as a surrender and a declaration of defiance. The interpretation depended on the order of placement of the objects as well as their emphasis. Albertine Gaur describes these interpretations as surrender - equating the mouse with the Scythians, the frog with their horses and the arrows with their weapons which they were about to surrender; or a declaration of defiance - the Persians would be killed by the arrows if they did not fly away like birds, hide in the earth like mice and leap into the water like frogs.
Also from the ancient island of Crete is the Phaistos disc, shown above, which archaeologists found in the outbuilding of a Minoan palace (now housed in the Iraklion Museum in Crete). The small (16 cm across) disc is especially unique in this much "dug" part of the world. It is further an anomaly since the inscriptions from its two sides have never been deciphered. The symbols bear no resemblance to any of the ancient script of that time period and area. The signs are recognizable as humans, plants and houses and other objects but their meaning in relationship to each other is unknown. Is it a story, or an historical account, or an inventory?
Among many types of objects on which have been used to carry messages are the message stick used by the Australian Aborigines, decorated beans of the Moche, a pre-Inca people from Peru; the wampum belts of the North American Iroquois, and the Cowrie shell of the Nigerian Yoruba. Knotted cords have been used by the Ancient Chinese, Tibetans, Japanese, Siberians, Africans and the Polynesians. The most well-known of the knotted cords used for information storage is the "quipu" developed and used by the Inca in Ancient Peru. The picture to the right shows a person displaying a quipu. It has been suggested that in addition to their use for storage of numbers that they may also have been adapted to convey the sounds of the Inca language.
Picture writing is another ancient form of information storage. It was used by various peoples from ancient times through the 19th century, on the walls of caves and on rocks. Some pictographs were painted, some carved, and some were scraped out where the rock was covered with soot or other stains. These beautiful illustrations have given much insight into the communications of prehistoric peoples.
Iconographic writing seems primitive in comparison with the aplphabetic and sylibary scripts of modern cultures, but iconographic representation is used in the twenty-first century as well - on traffic and warning signs, ranking systems in movie reviews, the signs indicating the women's or men's bathroom, icons on computer toolbars, and so on.
You may wonder what the transmission of ideas and language and writing development has to do with the nonlinear book or text. The answer is: everything. Visual communication began in forms that were not as linear as the modern book form with which we are most familiar. Writing was not originally a linear exercise. Most European languages are written left-to right and top-to-bottom, but other variations exist. We have provided some examples of the different ways languages have been written and read, using the English alphabet.
And how is this document written? Does hypertext move us very far from our orginal efforts at writing language? Cass Dalgish sees a parallel between the oldest and the newest of writing styles. "Patterns of writing and reading in the newest language environment -- hypermedia -- are echoes of writing and reading models practiced in the oldest language in history -- Sumerian cuneiform."
As writing evolved into codified linear languages, thus did the "book" evolve from wax and clay tablets, to scrolls of papyrus (for more information on papyrus, look at the Duke Papyrus Archive at Duke University Library), to parchment and vellum, to the codex (the traditional linear book format of pages fastened together on one side and anchored between two covers) and later to paper and the printing press. Throughout, however, there appear to be instances in which traditional formats are ignored. One example is the pompom-like book seen here, which is a rather dramatic departure from traditional format. It is supposed to contain the entire known history of the world, from creation to the 16th century, written on separate strips of paper.
Medieval European manuscripts (such as those collected at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University) were often written in a linear style similar to the trade paperbacks of today, but some were variations on this form. Some contained notes written in the margins, or were annotated after their production with a gloss (or translation) in between the original lines of text. Manuscripts were sometimes constructed using a tree structure to show the contents of a book in a less strictly hierarchical way than in a table of contents. A similar tree structure is now a common way to show files on a web-site map.
Once the printing press became widely used in the West, and books in the western codex format were produced in large numbers, it became difficult to think of the book in any other fashion. Nearly everyone now expects that a book must have a beginning, middle and end between the two covers. Texts are written in this format, and books continue to be physically constructed to support it.
The history of the book as art or the artist's book is more difficult to trace, but it has been suggested that William Blake might have been the first "book artist" since he shunned the commercial printing press in favor of publishing his own books, which were works of art in and of themselves. The printing press allowed for block text and prints only. Blake used a resist (a substance applied to a surface, as of metal, to prevent the action on it of acid or other chemicals) to make his drawings and write his text together on a thin copper plate which he then printed on his own press.
1945 brought the invention of a device called "memex" by Vannevar Bush who was at the time a science advisor to President Roosevelt. In an effort to organize and distribute scientific information which had been gathered during the war, he envisioned his invention, a book composed of microfilm pages which could store all of a person's records, books and letters, and would be mechanized and indexed so that a pathway of connections, or "links" could be made to supplement the mind. This was the beginning of hypertext from which has grown a whole industry of hypermedia and thus the hyperbook. There are several time lines of the history of hypertext (an interestingly linear way to describe the development of this medium), including the HyperTerrorist's timeline of hypertext history, the Electronic Labyrinth, and a Subjective chronology of cybertext, hypertext, and electronic writing.
Ernst Posner explains in his book Archives in the ancient world, "For more than half the time mankind has communicated in writing, most of the writing has been on clay, and this record output far exceeded that of all of Europe during the Middle Ages." At first thought, this seems surprising, but perhaps this is only because we live at our end of the timeline. It serves as a reminder that we should not try to interpret the few historical facts and ideas we can discover as if they were in the context of the present day. Linearity as we know it is a rather recent development.
-- written by Barbara Davison, 1997 and revised by Emily-Jane Dawson, 1999
Please see our Bibliography for books, websites, and articles on the history and future of writing, reading, the alphabet, books, and the book format. In addition, we discuss hypertext and the future of literature and the written word in our Future section.
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