Codex: Blocks of Wood Into a Book

AJacobsPleasuresofReadingFrom Alan Jacobs’ book on books and reading (The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Oxford, 2011) comes this footnote on the meaning of “codex”, a word he uses to help “make distinctions among the various technologies of reading.” He likes this word because it is precise according to its origin: “‘codex’ is the word I will use to describe that rectangular thing made of paper pages bound on one side to form a ‘spine'”.

And then follows this footnote:

‘Codex’ is a Latin word meaning ‘block of wood.’ In the ancient world the primary medium for the written word was the scroll, but scrolls were not very portable and were easily damaged; moreover, collections of them could be difficult to organize. Gradually there arose an alternative: a pair of small, thin wooden boards between which sheets of papyrus could be placed, the whole apparatus held together by leather strips threaded through holes in the boards and the papyrus.codex-1 These became quite fashionable among the Romans because they could be carried around and used to take quick notes: the first PDAs. Eventually people came to see that the codex was in most ways preferable to the scroll – in addition to being sturdier and more portable, it was cheaper, because you could write on both sides of a sheet – and scrolls eventually faded from use. Curiously, the early Christians were among the earliest adopters of the codex: in the second hundred years of Christianity almost all surviving Christian documents are codices, while most other groups, including Jews, stuck with the scroll (p.63).

Published in: on August 13, 2014 at 6:49 AM  Leave a Comment