Books: A Living History

Martyn Lyons. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. 224 pages. $34.95.

By Carol A. Leibiger

In Books: A Living History, historian Martyn Lyons provides a lavishly illustrated, short history for the general reader. While this work claims to be an account of the book, sweepingly defined as “a kind of shorthand that stands for many forms of written communication adopted in past societies using a wide variety of materials,” it principally traces the history of the codex. While focusing on books in the West, the author includes innovations from Asia and other regions, reminding readers that the book is the product of developments from around the globe.

Lyons organizes his history around six “revolutions of the book”: the invention of the codex, the transition from oral to silent reading, the eighteenth-century reading revolution, the expansion of literacy in the nineteenth century, the nineteenth-century industrialization of book production, and the current electronic revolution. Books, both as texts and objects, are collaborations involving authors, illustrators, editors, publishers, and readers. They support, and are shaped by, activities including reading, writing, printing, binding, learning, and censorship, as well as the acquisition, collection, and sharing of books by individuals and groups. Similarly, books are influenced by, and facilitate, even determine, cultural and intellectual activities, events, movements, and institutions. Lyons is mindful of the embeddedness of books, tying each revolution to its historical, social, and cultural context, reinforcing the ties of books to human affairs.

The treatment of the long history of the book is cursory and popular in this glossy, coffee-table book. Despite its brevity, the author presents the major developments in the history of textual genres represented in books and the development of book formats from the manuscript to the codex competently and concisely. The concluding discussion of the affordances associated with electronic resources is rather credulous; for instance, Lyons expresses breathless admiration of Wikipedia, praising it as “an endless palimpsest, in constant evolution, with its content perpetually verified and updated by consensus.” That public consensus, however, occurs in the general absence of quality control exercised over print media by editors, publishers, and even librarians; it does not necessarily assure consistent quality of Wikipedia’s contents. 

Lyons’ account demonstrates that, while the codex might be ceding its place to e-books in the Western world, to paraphrase Mark Twain: Reports of the book’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The codex has been produced since the Middle Ages, and it continues to offer a more comfortable and convenient format than the e-book, even for readers in the technology-rich West. Lyons suggests that the “crisis of the book” is actually a “crisis of the canon.” As Western literacy has increased during the past two centuries, the base of readers has broadened, and new genres, especially those supporting recreational reading and tied to visual media, have flourished. It is the challenge of such writing to the authority of canonical “dead white males” and the cultural hierarchies associated with them that is, in fact, at issue, not books themselves. Circumstances in non-Western societies including a lack of electricity, computers, and communications technology favor the low-tech codex as a tool to support literacy efforts in steadily increasing Third-World populations. Lyons does well to remind readers that the codex has been a global “player” for more than a thousand years, and that a revolution in format does not entail its demise so much as its evolution into new and more diverse forms.

Carol A. Leibiger (ΦΒΚ, University of Connecticut, 1977) is Associate Professor in the University Libraries at the University of South Dakota and a resident member of the Alpha of South Dakota Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.