The publishing industry is in a constant state of change these days, what with these new technologies and ebooks and ereaders and apps and whatnot. The changes can be overwhelming and so it’s good to put it into context. Sure, the printed book has been around, it feels like, forever but even the printed book has gone through its fair share of change.

I was browsing last month in a used bookstore in Greenwich Village, NYC, when I came upon The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski. When I handed the book over to purchase it, I mentioned to the owner of the bookstore that I was a print book designer turned ebook designer but I still loved print. He responded, in a bitter tone, “I like the first part of that but not the second. You guys are gonna put me out of business.” So remind me not to mention ebooks in a used bookstore. What I had intended was to start a conversation regarding digital versus print and I did mention that I personally don’t feel that print books are going away … but he wasn’t in the mood, or buying it, or something that prevented me from connecting to him.

Anyways, I’m enjoying the book and it’s full of reminders that reading matter has always been evolving:

“In the early centuries of [a.d.], bookshelves had to accommodate, in addition to scrolls, a growing number of bound manuscripts, or codices, which in time would displace scrolls as the preferred format for books. The codex, named for the face that it was covered with wood (codex means “tree trunk” in Latin), and which led to the term “code” in a legal context, was made by folding over flat sheets of papyrus or parchment and sewing them together into a binding. This had several distinct advantages over the scroll. Where an entire scroll might have to be unrolled to find a passage near the end, the relevant page could be turned to immediately in the codex. Also, writing in a scroll was normally on one side only, whereas the codex lent itself to the use of both sides of the leaf.”

(above, click on pic to enlarge) “In the sixteenth century, books began to have authors and titles, and the date of the edition imprinted on their spines. As long as the practice was far from universal, however, not all books were shelved spine outward. Here, a book not so imprinted is identified by a slip of paper tipped into an inside cover and folder over the book’s fore-edge.”

“Although cloth binding as we know it was first adapted to book-binding in 1823, ‘a style of binding uniform for all copies of the same book’ did not appear until around 1830, when machinery was introduced to letter the cloth-bound cases that could be fitted over the printed guts of a book. This development ushered in a new chapter in the way books were made and sold. Whereas the bookseller would bind or have bound, by hand of course, only as many copies as were likely to be sold in the immediate future—a form of just-in-time manufacturing [my note: doesn’t this sound like modern print-on-demand?]—with the advent of machinery the publisher itself began to bind an entire edition of a book in the common style of the time.”

Sure, we’re in the midst of a change in publishing … and it’s not the first time. Sure, it can be scary and uncertain and can make us fight over what we see the future as coming to. But the bottom line is that as long as people keep writing books and reading them and relating to each other through them, it’sallgood. And we can be proud to be a part of that chain that connects us all.