[a color photograph of the phaistos disc]

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?

[woodcut of a person holding a South American quipu]

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.

[photograph of wampum]

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."

[photograph of a 'pompom' book, made from strips of paper covered with text]

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.

Beginnings of the Book

Writing with words was invented by the Sumerians about five thousand years ago (c.3100 BC). As far as we know it derived from symbols used for the keeping of accounts around four hundred years earlier. Sumer was located in what is now Southern Iraq.

At first, writing was restricted to inscriptions, e.g. on stone, seals, brooches, and containers. The Sumerians then developed baked clay tablets, which can be regarded as the first books.

These were soon followed by the papyrus rolls of the Egyptians, made from a plant native only to the Nile Valley. From around 500 BC the papyrus roll became dominant, although clay tablets survived for another five hundred years or so.

Temporary records could be kept on wooden tablets hollowed out and filled with a wax coating. Students, merchants and others could write on the wax, then erase their markings and reuse the surface. These tablets could be connected in groups, which formed a model for the later codex book.

The Codex

The traditional modern form of the book is called the codex. It has multiple separate leaves of pages bound between protective covers. This format has been with us for about nineteen hundred years (from around the second century AD). Within two hundred years of its introduction the codex became dominant. The codex book (plural = codices) has survived so long because it has many unique advantages.

Papyrus, Parchment and Paper

The first codex books used either papyrus or parchment as the writing surface. Parchment was made from animal skin and gradually became preferred to papyrus for the codex, as it was more suitable for the new format. By the 7th century AD parchment had almost replaced papyrus altogether in Europe and the Middle East, and remained the preferred medium in Europe for about 800 years longer.

The disappearance of papyrus use was hastened by the near extinction of the papyrus plant, caused by foolish over harvesting. Parchment use did not seem impractical, since books were rare items hand-copied in only very limited quantities. Another more expensive writing material was vellum, a high quality variety of parchment made at first only from calfskin.

Meanwhile paper was invented in China as early as 105 AD, and was at first prepared from bark and hemp. This paper developed to a high standard, and paper-making later spread to Japan (c.610 AD), and then to the Arab world via Samarkand in Central Asia. Pre-Columbian American civilizations also produced a more primitive bark paper from an unknown date.

The Arabs introduced paper into Europe via Spain. However it was not actually made in Europe until around 1276 AD (in Italy), and not in England until 1495. One reason for this slow advance was that European-style paper, made usually from flax and hemp, was at first inferior to parchment, especially for illustrations. So until it was improved, paper was not very suitable for the style of illustrated manuscript common in the West.


Printing was another Chinese invention. The first known book not written by hand was printed in China in the ninth century AD, from engraved wooden blocks. Because Chinese writing was in the form of a very large number of pictographs, moveable type was of little advantage. However such cast type did appear in Korea before developing quite independently in Europe.

A major advance in the West was Johannes Gutenberg's printing from cast metal type (c.1450 AD). However this was still hand composed on a mostly wooden press.

The next great change was slow to arrive, being the metal printing press developed by Lord Charles Stanhope in 1803. This still relied on human power to operate, however. A steam-powered press invented by the German Friedrich Koenig followed in 1810.

An American, Richard Hoe, invented the faster rotary press in 1846. Printing raced further ahead when the mechanical composition of type was perfected in 1886 with the Linotype compositor.

Lithography was long used to print pictures for books. From this method came the idea for offset printing - in 1904 the first offset press appeared.

In offset printing the method of "relief" printing from cast metal type, traditional since Gutenberg, is replaced by a smooth photographic plate. The latter prints indirectly through a reverse image on a rubberised cylinder. By 1980 offset printing was taking over from the older method in many countries.

That was only the beginning of the modern printing revolution. From 1968 computers became involved in printing (the Linotron). In 1983 the offset plate progressed to a format involving the laser-beam transference of stored digital information. Gradually printing worldwide became a digital and computerised process, and mechanical printing began to disappear.

The Digital Revolution

This change led to the irony that a series of advanced digital electronic processes now produced the traditional analogue material book. It was only a matter of time before the logical conclusion would be drawn - that books could exist in a purely electronic form.

Moreover such books could incorporate new possibilities undreamed of in the printed codex book. For example they could be instantly updated, be searchable electronically, include sounds & video and even a dictionary, and interact directly with the new Internet, and therefore contain instant links to further information.

The advent of digital book files also meant that traditional physical books could now be printed individually as required from a stored computer file (Print on Demand, or POD), rather than in the traditional large print runs. This meant both that books could be cheaper in general, and that it was financially practicable to print them in limited numbers for a more restricted readership than before.

So rather than immediately displacing the printed codex, the advent of the digital book meant that the physical book could now flourish as never before. At the same time this change prepared the ground for a decisive future shift towards electronic reading (remember for example that clay tablets survived into the era of papyrus rolls for around five hundred years).

Dawn of the e-Book

The electronic book (e-book), existing as a virtual entity stored in a digital file, began to emerge in its own right in the last years of the twentieth century. Like many new technologies it suffered from technical teething troubles, ineffective or inappropriate marketing, commercial rivalries that slowed its progress, and initial public scepticism or indifference.

Gradually however the electronic book became capable of being read from an increasing variety of devices, and its vast potential began to be more widely understood. It became clear that the e-book would represent the next leap forward in the onward march of the book. While it can simply represent traditional texts it can also become a layered and interactive multimedia experience. Indeed the book of the future could even be spontaneously assembled from multiple sources for specific educational or entertainment purposes, by a single reader or group. The e-book therefore holds the promise of adding an unprecedented degree of flexibility to the concept of the book.

The book is one of humanity's most enduring cultural artifacts and treasures. As it evolves, the greatest threat to its future is therefore not from technical advances but from the danger of new generations losing the inclination to read. The ability to read and write is our greatest tool in education, and, apart from the family, the single most important medium existing for the transmission of ideas and the continuance of an evolving human culture.