The recent exhibition at the Grolier Club in Manhattan, “Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting Than Bronze” reminded me that the pocket-sized book was invented some five hundred years ago.
The pocket book revolutionized not only how we read but who and what we read.
In a recent talk I gave to the Editors Association of Canada about the changing face of publishing, I defined two milestones in the publishing industry.
The first milestone came in two stages, beginning with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Guttenburg in 1452. Up to then,
…Books were a work of art… And part of an elite. Delicate, large and beautiful, they were created in the language of the church—Latin—and in turn copied entirely by hand by the monks. With the dimensions of a current newspaper, but much thicker, these large illuminated manuscripts sometimes weighed more than 50 pounds.
Readers were mostly scholars and the religious elite. In fact, reading was an elite occupation. The majority of people at the time couldn’t read and had no interest in books. Besides, books were not written in the commonly spoken language of the countryside such as English, French, German or Spanish.
In fact, the presses formed the very basis of the artistic Renaissance, the religious reformations and the scientific revolution, wrote Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. “The printing press allowed the spread of information that couldn’t be controlled by the clergy, kings, politicians, or the religious elite,” adds New York Times technology reporter Nick Bilton in I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works. Storytelling was no longer confined to an elite clergy; books could be created by anyone and shared in the spoken languages of the people.
The printing press had opened a gate of opportunity for secular expression to a greater audience. Whenever an opportunity is created, a corresponding need is identified. The need to connect a literate lay public with scholars and storytellers was resolved fifty years later by Aldus Manutius.
Until then, books, albeit printed in the language of the people, remained large, heavy and cumbersome. In 1502, Aldus Manutius invented the portable pocketsize book—the small format libelli portatiles (portable little books)—effectively creating “the mobile phone of his day,” according to Bilton.
Bound in vellum, these long, narrow libelli portatiles, easily transported in a pocket or a satchel, “could be held in the hand and learned by heart by everyone,” wrote Manutius.
Manutius founded The Aldine Press in 1495 in Venice. His printing company proudly bore the logo of dolphin entwining an anchor—taken from the term festina lente (hasten slowly), a motto Manutius took from a Roman coin—and Aldine books quickly gained a reputation for their clean design, excellence in typography and inexpensive and accessible price. The Aldine press emphasized Greek and Latin lexicons and grammar manuals, with the first printed edition of Aristotle in 1495. Manutius was also the first to print Thucydides, Herodotus, Sophocles and other Greek philosophers. “He was possibly the first printer to compare manuscripts to arrive at the most reliable text,” adds Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times (February 27, 2015).
Manutius was the first to use italic type, mimicking the handwriting of that time, and the first to use the semicolon in its modern sense. In 1501, Manutius released Virgil’s Opera as the first of his octavo editions of the classics and the first book to use italic print. It was produced in higher-than-normal print runs (1,000 rather than the usual 200 to 500 copies).
The octavo format book is created from one or more full sheets of paper on which 16 pages of text are printed; the sheet is folded three times to produce eight leaves. Each leaf of an octavo book represents one-eighth the size of the original sheet. The actual size of the book depends on the original size of the full sheet of paper on which it is printed. These varied according to place and time. A sixteenth century octavo printed in France or Italy was about the size of a modern paperback; an eighteenth-century octavo printed in England was larger, about the size of a modern hardcover novel.
The second milestone I talked about is, of course, the worldwide use of the Internet. Like the Guttenberg printing press, the Internet and associated World Wide Web has created a gate of opportunity that has identified a need. That need is currently being satisfied by ebook publishing, mobile phone communication and the Indie/self-publishing model.
In my September 6, 2014 article “How We Will Tell Stories in the Future” I describe the effect of the Internet and use of digital devices as agents of change and empowerment in storytelling and publishing.
The first email was delivered in 1971 and in 1989 Cern gave us the WorldWide Web. The Internet wasn’t commercialized until 1995. The first web log (blog) was published in the late 1990s and Facebook was launched in 2004. A few years later smart communication devices were created and mass marketed with multi-touch interface (e.g., the iPhone). By 2013, over 2 billion people were using the Internet and social media via computer, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, e-readers and music players. Over 156 million blogs were identified and over 1 billion files were uploaded daily to Dropbox.
While many people still read books and go to the cinema, watch pre-programmed TV or rent DVDs, many more enjoy their stories through other devices: computers, downloads, mobile phones and e-readers that provide material through other media and venues such as Indie and self-publishing, amateur YouTube videos, interactive games and social networks. We stand poised on the edge of a wonderful cliff that celebrates the expression — and consumer choice — of the individual. The music industry shows this the best, where people dismissed the prepackaged albums and CDs and opted to create their own unique playlists through individual song downloads. The publishing industry is currently struggling with its own painful yet thrilling metamorphosis as is the visual arts industry. In fact, they are all blurring into one large integrated amalgam of artistic expression.
The information you get today is coming “more and more through your friends and through your social network. It’s being distributed through channels of trust and the trust isn’t necessarily the BBCor The New York Times. It’s people,” says B.J. Fogg founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University.
During the days of packaged content, leading storytellers were published authors, journalists and writers of newspapers and magazines. “Now distribution channels matter less and anyone with an appropriate device can be a storyteller,” says Bilton, who shares that on the Internet we tend to follow individuals we trust (e.g., Clive Thompson or David Carr) as much if not more than established organizations (like Wired Magazine or The New York Times). Accessible technology, platforms, free applications and software has totally enabled the individual. No longer confined to the written word via paper books or visual expression through movies or TV shows, storytelling has embraced many forms. Amateur and professional have equally blurred.
From paperbacks to digital phones and tablets, we are embracing the shifting zeitgeist of an entire world. The future belongs to the storyteller, from pocketbook to tablet. What’s next?
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.