Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Most Important Invention For Readers And Writers Has Lasted 2000 Years

The next time you're at a gathering of literary types and you'd like some bit of information with which to amaze them, I have the answer.

Book lovers are utterly dependent on an invention that has lasted for 2000 years, an invention that transformed the world starting around the 1st century AD with the Romans. 

The invention is the codex.

'What is a codex?' I wondered when my wife and I went to our first Codex Book Fair last week at the beautiful Craneway Pavilion in Richmond (just north of Berkeley).

Turns out the codex is simply our "modern" concept of a book, a device that consists of a pile of bound pages that one can flip back and forth. Prior to the codex, most writing was done on scrolls, and before that, on tablets, whether made of wood or stone or clay.

A 13th century codex from Bohemia, courtesy of Wikipedia

The problem with tablets was that they were bulky and heavy. Scrolls solved that problem, but they created a new problem. Scrolls were sequential. You couldn't get to the middle or end of a piece of writing without starting from the beginning and working your way through. 

The codex changed all that making it so that one could have easy access to any part of a work of writing. You can open a book - I mean, codex - to the middle or end without going through the whole work from the beginning. So simple, yet world changing and very cool.

As you can imagine, that revolutionized our information systems. Within a few hundred years, the codex totally blew scrolls out of the water. In the mid-15th century, Gutenberg came along with his handy printing press, and that was obviously a big deal, too. But what if he'd had to print on scrolls? 

Incidentally, smart as the Romans were, the Maya civilization in Central America also invented the codex, probably around the 5th century. And the Maya invented a much better kind of paper than the papyrus the Romans used. The Maya used their books to carefully record the history of their civilization for most of their thousand-year existence. 

From the Dresden Maya Codex, courtesy of Wikipedia

Unfortunately, when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived and kicked those poor Mayan butts, the Spanish priests saw that the Mayans had hundreds of books filled with writing and beautiful illustrations. They decided that because the Maya hadn't yet been exposed to Christianity, those books probably represented the devil, so they burned them all.

A few Spaniards made notes about the number of books and the nature of their content. They even noted that the Mayans flipped out to see the history of their civilization burned. Yeah, no kidding. 

So apparently, codex/book burning has a long and proud history going all the way back.

There are only three authenticated Maya codices that survived.

Here's the Wikipedia article on Maya Codices. Check out the amazing illustrations!

Fortunately, people today recognize the value of the codex, something that many of us take for granted. And there is a biennial Codex Book Fair that celebrates the original concept of the handmade book. 

At the Codex Book Fair, there were probably 100 exhibitors with gorgeous handmade books filled with poetry and photographs. I highly recommend it. Here's the link to the fair. Put it on your calendar for early 2017.

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