on April 1, 2004
Scholarly work that details the history of the written word from oral traditions and clay tablet business transactions to the modern e-book and the skyrocketing demand for published works not just of an intellectual or research-driven nature, but increasingly in the realm of genre fiction and so-called "beach reads". Kilgour does an excellent (if a bit too clinical) job of outlining the whole arch of modern bookmaking from the earliest examples of Sumerian cuneiform ("cuneus" being Latin for wedge and thus a wedge-shaped impression) writing and Egyptian papyrus text to the development of paper making and the codex form of the book which is the standard form still in use today and concluding with an in-depth analysis of the publishing industry as shaped by the invention of the Gutenburg press and the subsequent revolution of printing technology. The most interesting chapters detail the thinkers, universities, Church and monastary scriptoriums, and the Islamic communtiy who kept the art of writing and bookmaking alive in the dreariest times of the Dark Ages. These accounts provide Kilgour with more breathing room to work his straight-to-the-point prose while enlivening the tome with a bit more personal history. But while it is factual to a strict degree it is also cumbersome by default to the point where the tedium of the last four chapters (page after page of details about printing presses with unremittingly dull descriptions of how they work and every last incrimental adjustment and patent and improvement made over the course of five hundred years) is almost unbearable. Still, "The Evolution Of The Book" is a compact read of only one hundred and sixty pages and therefore provides a perfect little time capsule of the most important invention ever bestowed by God upon man: the ability to reason and record written information and the ability to learn from said information with the hopeful intent of changing that individual's thinking from the inside out. Whether or not for the better is entirely up for critical and moral debate.
on August 23, 2000
I should begin by pointing out that the "book," as Kilgour defines it, is not only the codex. This includes tablets, scrolls and the electronic book, as well.
Kilgour divides the history of the book into several "punctuated equilibria." A term he stole from evolutionary biologists, this means points in time when major changes happened quickly. For example, when the codex came into existence, or when Gutenburg invented (for the West) printing. This is an effective method, as the reader gets a good deal of information on the important developments, and it's clear what is important.
However, Kilgour does include info on the minor changes that occurred in between, and these often turn into laundry lists. It's obvious from the structure of the book that these are not especially important, but they're there, anyway. And they get dull. My one other major criticism is that the book could use more pictures (e.g., Kilgour describes the Book of Kells, but a picture is worth 1000 words).
Overall, though, I recommend this book to someone looking for a complete and generally easy to follow history of the book.