The Book by Keith Houston. Or, In Praise of the Lone Genius and How to Erase the Persian Empire from History

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The ruins of Persepolis, Iran. Persepolis was one of the capital cities of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Source: CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=655691

What would you say is the greatest invention of the Middle Ages?

To me the answer is obvious.

The greatest invention of the Middle Ages is the book.

Or rather, the codex, to use its technical term.

A codex is a stack of folded sheets, made from papyrus, parchment or paper, collated along one side to form a spine and then placed within a protective casing made from wood or thick paper. In other words, what we today call a book.

The reason why codex is the technical term for a book is that “book” is a collective term for different types of objects that serve as repositories for writing, either printed or by hand. Other such objects are clay tablets and scrolls made from papyrus or parchment. The codex itself can be divided into several different types, such as illuminated manuscripts (handwritten on parchment during the Middle Ages), incunabula (books printed before the year 1500), or chapbooks and pamphlets (cheap pocket-sized printed books popular during the 17th and 18th centuries).

41UHen-IwaLThe history of the codex is a fascinating one. So fascinating in fact that Keith Houston decided to dedicate an entire book to the history of the book. His book is called The Book. The subtitle is A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time.

I agree with Houston that the book is a powerful object. Even though the physical format of the book is ever changing–from clay tablet to scroll to codex to digital tablet–the book itself endures. However, Houston’ book is not a book about the book. It’s a book about the history of how a book is made, with particular emphasis on the development of printing techniques.

Houston starts his narrative in Ancient Mesopotamia and the invention of writing, without which there would be no books. He then moves through history and discusses the inventions of papyrus, parchment, and paper; the making of ink; the development of writing as an everyday mode of communication; and the development of printing presses in China and in Europe.

At this point, Houston makes a jump in time and in content. Instead of discussing the book as a powerful object during the Early Modern Period with the advent of the chapbook and the pamphlet, without which there would not have been an English Civil War nor an American Revolution, no liberal democracy, no Freedom of the Press Acts or demands for free speech and social equality, Houston instead falls into the rabbit hole of the mechanics of printing. The siren song of the story of the lone male genius is powerful, and Houston steers his ship right towards its rocky shore.

If Houston is to believed, four Ancient civilizations contributed to the development of what was to become the codex–China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. China’s inventions are recognized but their actual influence on Europe is questioned. Mesopotamia and Egypt serve as conduits towards the achievements of Greece and Rome, here presented as European civilizations which, in turn, upholds the out dated argument that Mesopotamia and Egypt were somehow European as well.

The traditionalist Eurocentrism of Houston’s historical summary causes him to dedicate two pages to dismissing the significance of the Phoenicians and their alphabet with the purpose of maintaining the link between modern English and Egypt as a “European” civilization. And, he skips over the one Ancient civilization that did more for normalizing the use of writing in everyday communications than any other, namely Persia.

The Persian Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BCE) was the largest empire of the Ancient world. From its heartland in present-day Iran, the Achaemenids ruled a territory that reached from the shores of the Levant and North Africa to the Indus Valley in northern India. They kept this vast territory together through an intense letter exchange between the ruler of the empire, the King of Kings, and the satraps, or governors, of the empire’s many provinces.

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Notice the King’s Highway/Via Maris between Susa and Sardis that for millennia connected the Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean. In the Persian Empire, this road served as the backbone for government communications through letter writing. By Original creator: MossmapsCorrections according to Oxford Atlas of World History 2002, The Times Atlas of World History (1989), Philip’s Atlas of World History (1999) by पाटलिपुत्र (talk) – This file was derived from: The Achaemenid Empire at its Greatest Extent.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73745174

When Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Empire, he kept the system of satraps and the network of communications, which after the Successor Wars became part of the states of the Hellenistic kingdoms. As Hellenism spread throughout the Mediterranean basin, other states and empires became Hellenized as well, among them Rome.

If you ask Houston, the history related in the above paragraphs never took place. According to him, letter writing as a means of state communication that led to the normalization of writing for everyday communication happened in Rome.

Within the history view put forward by Houston, this makes sense. Persia was the enemy of Greece, and Houston has obviously only read the Greek view of the Persians. He sees Rome as the foundation of European civilization, even though the Rome he is referring to was long gone by the time an idea of “Europe” began to take shape. Mesopotamia and Egypt are there to pave the way for what was to come.

Keith Houston’s The Book falls into the trap of the lone genius and provides a cherry-picked overview of the history of the codex.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

10 Things You Need to Know about the Sarajevo Haggadah

Passover is just around the corner, so on March 26, 2018, I published the following post on Book Riot.

10 Things You Need to Know about the Sarajevo Haggadah

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Page from the Sarajevo Haggadah. Notice the wine stains and handwritten doodles, which indicate that this haggadah has been in extensive use throughout the years. (Source: Wikipedia)

Every year on Passover Jewish families all over the world gather ’round to celebrate and commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. At the center of this annual celebration is taking turns reading from a book called a haggadah. The word haggadah comes from the Hebrew root HGD, which means “to tell,” which is exactly the purpose of the Passover celebration–to tell the story of the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, also known as the Exodus.

Because haggadot are not considered holy texts, but rather instruction materials, over time they have developed into beautiful artifacts of book art. And nowhere were such beautiful haggadots made as in the Spanish city of Barcelona during the Middle Ages. And of these Barcelona haggadots, few can compare to the wonder and splendor of a book today known as the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Here are ten things you need to know about the Sarajevo Haggadah.

If you wish to read the post in its entirety, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

10 Things You Need to Know about the Golden Haggadah

On April 6, 2017, I published the following post on Book Riot.

10 Things You Need to Know about the Golden Haggadah

The Golden Haggadah miniatures

Next week is Passover, one of the most important holidays in Judaism. Passover celebrates the Exodus, in other words when God liberated the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

On the first night of Passover, family and friends gather round for the Seder when everybody takes turns reading from a book called a haggadah. The haggadah contains the story of the Exodus, intermingled with prayers and songs. The Seder is then concluded with good food and wine.

Because the Torah contains only text, and depictions of God are forbidden, over time the haggadah became the book where Jews interpreted their religion through images. Throughout the centuries, the haggadah also became a way for Jewish families to display their prosperity and wealth.

No other haggadah is a better example of this than the Golden Haggadah.

Here are ten things you need to know about the Golden Haggadah.

If you want to read the rest of this post, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

10 Things You Should Know about the Gutenberg Bible

On July 13, 2016, I published the following post on Book Riot.

10 Things You Should Know about the Gutenberg Bible

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The invention of the internet has ushered in the digital age and revolutionized how we access and share information. But this change in how we distribute information is not the first of its kind to have taken place.

Five hundred and sixty-one years ago a man in Germany invented a new kind of printing press.

This printing press sparked a revolution in the distribution of information in medieval Europe.

If you wish to read the entire post, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

10 Things You Should Know about the Lindisfarne Gospels

On February 3, 2016, I published the following post on Book Riot.

10 Things You Should Know about the Lindisfarne Gospels.

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The time period between the years 500 and 900 is sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages. The idea behind this name is that after the collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe, people were left to fend for themselves in an unsophisticated and savage society.

This view is, however, inaccurate. Rather, the period referred to as the Dark Ages was a period of cross-cultural encounters which gave rise to incredible works of art, the finest of which were created in monasteries at remote locations in the British Isles.

One of the most astounding works of art from this period is the Lindisfarne Gospels, created at the Lindisfarne Priory off the coast of Northumbria, northeast England. Predating the Book of Kells by nearly a century, the Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated manuscript the likes of which are rarely seen.

Here are ten things you should know about the Lindisfarne Gospels.

If you would like to read the rest of the post, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.