New Worlds: Stelae, Scrolls, and Books

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Human beings can and will write on pretty much any surface that doesn’t run away fast enough.

But when it comes to the form those surfaces take, the field does narrow a bit. An ostracon, for example, is a broken sherd of pottery or sometimes stone with writing scratched into it, which you could call an early form of recycling. But as an organized method of record-keeping, it leaves something to be desired.

In considering how texts get shaped, I’d start with a distinction between public and personal writing. Public writing is meant to be seen by lots of people, and as such, it has to satisfy different requirements. You generally want it to be durable, visible, impressive. Stelae and similar structures are common in many parts of the world because they make for good monuments on which to carve whatever message you’re conveying: a decree, a triumphal boast, a boundary mark, or anything else you consider important. Walls are good, too — think of how many public buildings you’ve been in whose walls contain lists of patrons, information about the building’s history, or inspirational quotes. This is often written quite large, and high enough that it can be seen even when people are in the way, because the point is to make the message visible.

Personal writing doesn’t have the same requirements, and can be very ephemeral — unfathomable numbers of letters and scribbled notes have been lost throughout the millennia. Sometimes it’s even erasable, whether that’s through a wax tablet or unfired clay tablet, whose surface can be smoothed out again, or a palimpsest, a piece of parchment that has been scraped clean for re-use. (Recycling in action again: parchment was expensive.)

One of the earliest ways to compile writing was in a scroll: a long piece of writing material (papyrus, parchment, paper, fabric) rolled up, maybe with sticks at each end to facilitate the process and keep the scroll from getting crushed flat. These are found in many parts of the Old World, from Spain to Japan, and still see a limited amount of use today, whether as decoration on a wall or in religious contexts, as with a Torah scroll.

Why did scrolls fall out of use? They are inconvenient in some respects. If the text you’re looking for is at the end of the scroll, you have to wind your way through the whole thing to get it . . . and then if you want to compare against something earlier, you have to roll all the way back to the previous bit. Alternatively, you need a huge table on which you can unroll the whole thing at once. There’s no easy way to mark the location of the desired text for later reference, either — no equivalent to saying “it’s on page 137.” (Though is there such a thing as a scroll bookmark? A paperclip-type object you can put on the edge, which will stay there when you roll it up again? I can’t find any evidence, but that doesn’t mean it never existed.) On the other hand, scrolls offer certain advantages. The continuous surface allows them much more flexibility in juxtaposing text with images, and they have the ability — almost like a movie, or a comic book — to suggest the passage of time as you read along.

These days, though, we’re accustomed to receiving text in the form of a codex — the technical term for a book. Codices evolved out of hinged Roman wax tablets, and offer a number of benefits: not only is it possible to bookmark and reference specific points in the text, or to quickly flip back and forth between different sections, but you can edit them by taking off the binding and adding or removing pages. Furthermore, the covers help protect the more fragile interior against damage, and their shape makes them easy to shelve in an organized fashion.

Some codices, like the few surviving ones we have from pre-colonial Mesoamerica, are folded like an accordion, but this has given way to the style you’re familiar with, where pages are marked on both sides and bound only at one edge. (This, by the way, is different from how Mesopotamian clay tablets are read! There you “turn the page” by flipping the object along its horizontal axis, so that the reverse side is written upside-down compared to the obverse.)

Codices aren’t always written as coherent texts, though. In the days before the printing press, it wasn’t uncommon to collect separate pages of various things and bind them together in a codex — which is how we get partial survivals of some lost manuscripts, if a few pages were bound with something else, or high-tech scanning reveals the traces of earlier writing on a palimpsest.

The printing press introduces an oddity of its own. Rather than printing each page separately, early publishers often printed large sheets with multiple pages and then folded them up to create “signatures,” i.e. chunks of book that could then be bound. But of course those folds prevent you from turning the pages, so the purchasers of books used knives to slit open the folds and make the book readable. This means that your protagonist could realize someone’s library is just for show — because none of the signatures have been cut open yet!

Nowadays, of course, we have ebooks and ereaders and a hundred electronic ways of storing information. For some purposes (e.g. organization, searching, ease of copying) this is amazing! . . . but for durability, I’m afraid it kind of sucks. How many of you still have an optical drive on your computer, for reading CDs and the like? How about a drive for 3.5″ disks? Or 5.25″ floppies? And that’s just in the last 25 years or so. The format of the physical media becomes obsolete; the software for reading certain file formats goes away. The media itself degrades quite rapidly, and files become corrupted. It’s a massive problem for long-term data storage, and one I know the world of library science is working on solving.

But until that happens, books and scrolls and even clay tablets remain far more stable options for recording information than anything invented in the last hundred years. Properly cared for, they can last for centuries or even millennia.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Stelae, Scrolls, and Books — 20 Comments

  1. I spend all day long talking about the history of the book-as-object at my day job. It’s interesting to note that at the beginning of the codex-form book, there were (by modern standards) relatively few texts to choose from, but the owner of the book had almost limitless control over how they looked. When books were scribed and hand-illustrated, decisions were made about the hand and the style (and what was to be illustrated), and bindings were made according to the instructions of the buyer. When Guttenberg comes along, the interior of books within a printing took on uniformity (supposedly Guttenberg’s creditor, Johannes Fust, who wound up with the press after protracted bankruptcy proceedings, was accused of witchcraft because of the unholy uniformity of page to page…) but the exteriors became, if anything, more different than ever before. In a given print run, some sets of pages might never be bound, others might be gathered and sewn, with board covers tied on, some covered in fabric, others in leather of an array of colors, and some would have gold tooling or gilded edges. The phrase “you can’t tell a book by its cover: has no meaning until the Industrial age, because no one expected to know what a cover told you about the interior.

    Nowadays, our choice of text is unbelievably broad, and there are different formats (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook), but the general buyer has no input at all into the book’s appearance. Things change.

    • Huh — now I’m wondering if print on demand will eventually bring back some amount of that customization! There used to be a service called AnthologyBuilder where authors could upload stories and then readers could assemble custom anthos, including choosing their cover; I could see something like that gaining currency without too much technological hassle.

  2. For bookmarking passages in a scroll, I’d use a ribbon (or a strip of paper, on the end of which you can write something; or for a modern scroll a post-it note) instead of a paperclip. A paperclip might damage the edge either mechanically or through rust.
    If you add a ribbon (letting the end peek out) at the point where the passage meets the rolled scroll when rolling it up, then even without unrolling you can see there’s a marked passage, or multiple marked passages, in this scroll. If using paper strips you can mark the end with something that’ll help you realise which marked passage you need, without unrolling the scroll to that point.

    • The thing is, a ribbon could slide from where you originally placed it. I mean, it’s better than nothing, but it isn’t as reliable as a bookmark between two pages. You’re right that a paperclip-style marker could damage the scroll, but short of using adhesives, it’s the only thing I can think of that you could trust to stay right where you put it.

  3. I once flirted with bookbinding (poorly, just as a personal hobby) and sent my mom a Coptic-stitch bound notebook. She sat up all night reverse-engineering how the stitch worked (that’s how my mom rolls) and correctly described the process to me over the phone, then waxed rhapsodic about how it was so much better in terms of binding properties than the simple stab-bindings that she was familiar with as traditional Korean binding methods, even if it was more difficult to execute.

    I almost considered making Kujen’s personal archives scrolls because Rushthatspeaks explained some advantages to the system if you added some tech to it, but decided against it in the end. XD

    I wonder about the first bookmarks! I often use random pieces of junk mail or whatever as bookmarks. When did people start making bookmarks as objects in themselves?

    • She sat up all night reverse-engineering how the stitch worked (that’s how my mom rolls)

      Hee. πŸ™‚

      Rushthatspeaks explained some advantages to the system if you added some tech to it

      Oooh. Share?

      I wonder about the first bookmarks! I often use random pieces of junk mail or whatever as bookmarks. When did people start making bookmarks as objects in themselves?

      Wikipedia hath all the answers. πŸ™‚ Short form: apparently as soon as we started making books.

      • Here’s Rushthatspeak’s comment explaining scrolls vs. codices (including ways you could high-tech-ify them, which was relevant to my specific use case because hexarchate).

        • Interesting! Not just the high-tech scroll part, but the reminders of the pros and cons of each of the formats (e.g. I said that the advantage of codices was that they’re easy to edit but Rush points out the disadvantage is that they’re . . . easy to edit; also the stuff about damage to the beginning and end of the text). You could also sub in magic for the tech alterations, and given how much fantasy likes old things such as scrolls, that seems like it could be a fun worldbuilding touch.

  4. Christians really liked the codex. Pagans did not.

    I mean, there are archeological digs that find books, and the Christian ones are more than 90% codices, and the pagan ones, more than 90% scrolls.

    Go figure.

    • Not surprising, honestly. Upstart religion favors a new format for record-keeping? Of course you’re going to stick to your good old scrolls, rather than copying this new fad you’re really hoping will go away.

    • neat.
      though, could that be, in part, at least, because a lot of the NT (including the parts that were eventually rejected) were either letters or very very few pages in length?

  5. The difficulty of safely marking a scroll so you know what’s in it might partly explain how large libraries gained their custodians who made sure the scrolls/books were cared for, knew where they were in the library, and kept a ledger of detailed info on what was in a scroll? (Question mark because I am musing before coffee, a dangerous thing.) Were the makers of books and keepers of books very different occupations, or did they bleed together in some or most locations? (New thing to research and fall down the rabbit hole. . . .)

    We forget (or most people never think about it) that alphabetizing or Dewey or other filing systems were not duplicated across nations. Some systems started over with a new ruler, didn’t they (Argh)? Going to a library in a new country and asking the help of the local keeper in finding a work must have been standard operating procedure.

  6. Location has a lot to do with the endurance of the scroll too. Scrolls made from papyrus (not all were, of course) did not hold up well in more northern climes (where “did not hold up well” = tended to rot and disintegrate).

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  8. My husband loves to sniff out rare books at local net auctions and secondhand stores. Recently he bought a book published in 1946. By Ivan Yefremov, the flaming genius of early Soviet SF. 70 years of previous owners and no one had bothered to slit the pages open. (Well, the translation was awful but yet! And a slightly better translation of another of his books, published in 1956 in a very popular adventure series, now costs its weight in gold because people want the whole set whether they read it or just look at it . . .)

    I used to study another instance of public inscriptions. Graffiti. They had it in Roman times. In PostSoviet countries it tends to consist of ‘Ivan byl zdes’ (I am Ivan the Idiot and I was here), ‘Tsoi zhiv’ (a Russian singer songwriter is alive. Ever since he died in 1991), Peace and Anarchy signs, ‘Maria plus Alexander equals a heart’, etc, on monuments and other walls seen from the street. In pub restrooms, however, it gets weird. Sure there are the ‘Martin I miss you’ (in flaming lipstick) and the ‘Boys call me at 555 123 223’ (in women only toilets, too), and the ‘Some come here to sit and think’ ditty but for 30 years someone has been enriching our restrooms with lengthy passages by Herman Hesse (serious constipation?), and someone else countering with Douglas Adams. And of course variations of ‘Do NOT eat the fish here, I made that mistake’ has been around since Rome and remains still mostly on the spot (even if too late as you are probably searching for a pen to write the fifteenth Me Too).

    And I think it says a lot about the people who write these things. More than books and monuments. Because we try and show off our best in public writing but when drunk, in stomach trouble, thwarted in love, and all alone in a WC people just shout out anything on their mind.

    • I have just added graffiti to the list of future topics. πŸ˜€ I presume it’s a nearly universal thing — that if there’s a wall and a way to write on it, people will do so — but I only really hear about ancient Roman graffiti, not (say) ancient Indian or Chinese graffiti. I wonder if it didn’t happen there, or if we just don’t hear about it?