A book can be evaluated in several ways including:

1. The material used to construct the book.

2. The organization of the content by elements and layout.

3. The impact that a book had on the culture and spirit of the time in which it was produced.

By studying early written manuscripts one can see the origin of page organization, margins, columns, paragraph indents, headers and pagination etc.

Do try to visit a rare book collection to get a better understanding of the development of book forms. If not possible there are many wonderful digital book collections on line. What determines if a book is rare?

First Editions
Fine Bindings and Illustrations


1. The Material of the Text

Bookmakers have utilized plants (papyrus, rice, palm leaves), animal skins (parchment and vellum), and cloth rags or wood pulp for the text of a book. Wood, leather, as well as precious metals and gems were used to adorn the coverings..

Paper Making
Ts’ai-Lun Louen of China is credited with inventing paper in 105. The closely guarded secret was extracted from Chinese paper makers held prisoner after the Chinese were defeated by Ottoman Turks in 751. Paper- making expertise traveled to Africa by 1150 and spread to Europe through Spain and Italy by the 1200’s. In 1283 a paper mill was established in Fabriano, Italy. 
Still working see Fabriano today. The paper in incunabula and early books was manufactured from rags andcloth fibers which can last for centuries. In 1838, Canadian Charles Fenerty invented paper made from wood pulp, often acidic and short lived. Link to a web site devoted to Mr. Fenerty

2. Watermarks

Watermarks are decorative images embedded into the fibers of paper during the production process. The image can be a simple outline, text or elaborate images with gradient tones.
The use of watermarks persists today in paper of fine quality. The term has been adopted in the digital age for marks embedded into an image file for security.

rittenhouse watermakr

The watermark above was imbedded in the paper made by William Rittenhouse in the first American paper mill founded in Philadelphia in 1690. Read more…

3. Laid & Wove Papers

Laid paper (left) shows the underlying structure of the screened frame on which is it formed from liquid pulp.

In the mid-1700’s John Waterman developed a paper in which the fibers did not line up into a discernable pattern—wove(above right). This allowed for a smoother surfaced paper which was suitable for letterforms with delicate line weights. John Baskerville used this paper for his 1757 printing of Virgil. Here is a link to the story of the Whatman paper project.

Manuscript BooksChinese Influences
scroll and codex picture

Book of Kells

Click here for a larger view.

histoirated letter

Lovely video of the process of illumination painting shown on the British Library web site.early block print4. Scrolls

The first book form was a scroll— sheets of paper, cloth or papyrus attached in one continuous piece and rolled for storage. Text was usually written on one side and divided up into readable sections called paginae. Scrolls were called volumes (from the Latin word for roll). The outside was identified by a title slip, the titulus, which described the contents. The gentleman above is examining the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. (Image Source)


This web site is a digital scroll, probably not the easiest format for reading, so I am working on a something better for mid-2011. Thanks for your patience.

Rolling and unrolling was awkward and made it difficult to access specific sections. Eventually scrolls were folded into an accordion format, the precursor of the modern book.


5. Codex

In the 4th century Christians adopted the codex book form—folding a sheet in half to create 4 pages and then binding them together at a spine. The codex was constructed from folded leaves bound together at the spine and had the advantage of being opened to a specific sections as well as being more portable.
Some historians feel that the codex was used to consciously separate Christian texts from Hebrew scrolls. One of the most famous codex books is the The Book of Kells. This masterpiece of illumination in the Irish “insular” style features entire pages of intense ornamentation without text, called “carpet” pages. Carpet pages were used to separate the books of the four gospels.
“The script is embellished by the elaboration of key words and phrases and by an endlessly inventive range of decorated initials and interlinear drawings. The book contains complex scenes normally interpreted as the Arrest of Christ, His Temptation, and images of Christ, the Virgin and Child, St. Matthew and St John. Originally a single volume, it was rebound in four volumes in 1953 for conservation reasons.”
Currently you can see the book on display at Trinity College in Dublin where it is visited by 500,00 people each year.
For a larger view of the above page.
And for more pages go here.6. Illuminated Manuscripts

The term “manuscript” literally means“hand-written.” Sheets were cut to size and the layout was roughed in with silver point. Areas were left open for the painted image or historiated majuscule (large letter with a little scene painted in it, see above) to be painted by illuminator. Initially this was done by men or women from the clergy working in the church “scriptorium” but in later years lay people also produced manuscripts

Colors were made from pigments compounded from vegetable and animal matter. Pure gold leaf was adhered in tissue-thin sheets but the most expensive color was the blue that came from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone imported from Afghanistan (below). The paintings were known asminiatures not a reference to their size but to the Latin term, minum, which refers to red pigment.

7. Single Wood Block Prints

The print above is one of the earliest known dated woodblock prints in Western Europe. Dated 1423, it was found pasted inside the cover of a manuscript. The strong influence from earlier Chinese prints is evident in the treatment of the water.

Playing cards were printed to replicate Chinese domino-like game tiles. The cards were printed by placing paper over an inked wooden block and rubbed to take an impression from the raised areas. In Europe cards were printed in black outline and then hand colored by painting or stenciling.The popularity of card games in Europe increased the demand for printing.

Early Printed Books

gutenberg press

Folio = 1 fold, 4 pages
Quarto= 2 folds, 8 pages
Octavo = 3 folds, 16 pages

8. Wood Block Printed Books

Prior to the invention of moveable type, books were printed using full page-sized blocks carved with backward reading images and text. Hand coloring was sometimes applied afterward.

Like today’s graphic novels, a compelling story was told in pictures. Despite the stories biblical era the figures were illustrated in contemporary (14th century) dress. Although meant for a illiterate population to understand through images, some text was included in conversation bubbles shaped like ribbon strips.You might say you are now reading a digital graphic design history book. Many images, little text.

See the above book, the Biblia Pauperum or Poor Man’s Bible, 1325,on line here.

9. Books Before 1501

A book printed prior to 1501 is categorized as incunabulum(plural=incunabula). The Latin wordcunae, translates as “cradle,” referring to the infancy period of book printing.

Although printing presses had been in use for China since the first century Gutenberg is credited with perfecting the screw printing press in Western Europe. See the end of the Handwriting section to read more about Gutenberg.

Printers were strictly printers— when the printing was completed the pages would be sent to a bindery where the book could be finished as elaborately as the buyer desired. Options included marbled end papers, gold embossed lettering, tooled leather, and possibly some amazing fore edge painting.

10. Folded Pages & Pagination

Pages of set metal type were arranged on the press for printing one side of a sheet of large paper. The term for this configuration is imposition.

After printing the whole sheets of paper were folded. The size of an incunabulum is determined according to how large the whole sheets of paper were and how many times they were folded. (see above)

In book spreads the left page (even numbered) is referred to as verso and right page (odd numbered) is the recto.

Before the mid-16th century book pages were not numbered butsignatures were identified with letters and numbers. Usually, the order of quires was indicated by alphabetical letters such as “a, b, c and d,” and that of leaves was indicated by numerals such as “i, ii, iii and iv” or “1, 2, 3 and 4.” Sometimes at the end of a volume a page called the register would lists all quire symbols and the words written at the beginning of each leaf in the first half of each quire.

These notations showed bookbinders the order of quires in the book and the order of leaves in each quire.

11. Gloss

This manuscript page from The Epistles of St. John Paul, 1150, demonstrates the practice of writing commentary about the content in the margins and even between the lines of text. These notations are referred to as the gloss.
Sometimes the gloss takes up more of the page than the actual text. The format of bordering or surrounding the text with gloss was held over and used in printed books. See a printed example here.
in 1890, James Whistler used gloss commenting to defend himself from critic John Ruskin’s critiques in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.(below)


12. Text Columns and Margins

Diomedes: De Art Grammatica, 1480. Although this may look like a manuscript it is a letterpress print by Nicolas Jenson. Notice the retention of the manuscriptpage proportions, text block,margins, the hand drawn initial cap and the application of color to selected capitals in the text.

For a good evolution of page design here is a Reading Suggestion:500 Years of Book Design by Alan Bartram.

For those of you age 12 or below I suggest Book from the Eyewitness Series.

13. Aldus Manutius (1449-1515)

Venetian printer Aldus Manutius devised a method to print libelli portatiles (portable little books). (see #10 above). Printing works of noted authors, he stripped them of the commentaries that traditionally surrounded them, and used a space-saving italic font that imitated the finest humanist calligraphy. FrancescoGriffo was commissioned to cut the punches for the italic.

Most incunabula did not have formal title pages. The image above is a title page of sorts from Manutius. (More about Aldus in #16)

By the early 1500’s the title page featured increasingly elaborate images including various portraits of the author as well as printers marks and mottos.


14. Printed Decoration

Woodblock decoration replaced the time-consuming art of hand illumination. Above is a page design by Erhard Ratdolt, a printer known for his elaborate borders and large ornate initial caps derived fromeastern Arabic influences. Here is a link to Ratdolt’s design of a page on mathematics. Ratdolt’s heavy borders influenced William Morris and the Private Press movement 400 years later.
The Arabic influence traveled on to France where lighter engravedarabesques were used by most book printers.Granjon Arabesque sample fromHoefler & Frere-Jones above.

Printing Books with Wood Blocks, Letterpress, and Wood and Metal Engravings

Diamond Sutra at the British Library

See a digital copy at the Morse Library

A digital version for closer inspection.

15. Diamond Sutra ,
868 AD

The first complete printed manuscript with a known date is the Buddhist Diamond Sutra.(Sutra means religious teaching or sermon). It measures 16 feet in length by a foot high. The Chinese were early pioneers in printing, using it every day in their printed money. There is no way this can be shown properly here…click the link above where you can unroll the scroll and have a nice look.

“Hidden for centuries in a sealed-up cave in north-west China, this copy of the ‘Diamond Sutra’ is the world’s earliest complete survival of a dated printed book. It was made in 868. Seven strips of yellow-stained paper were printed from carved wooden blocks and pasted together to form a scroll over 5m long. Though written in Chinese, the text is one of the most important sacred works of the Buddhist faith, which was founded in India.” (Quote Source: British Library)

16. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
Printer Aldus Manutius, 1498

“The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Strife of Love in a Dream) is generally considered to be the finest illustrated book of the Renaissance – some might even describe it as the first artist’s book. Its woodcuts are beautiful and can stand by themselves, the printing is remarkably handsome and executed by the leading scholar-printer of the age (Aldus Manutius), and the text – composed in a distinctive compound of Latin and Italian, with scraps of Arabic, Greek, and Hebrew – is one that remains open to a fascinating range of interpretations, both worldly and esoteric.”
(Quote Source, 

We love the way the type color balances with the illustration line weight. A complete digital copy has been made available online since 1997 by the MITt Press: Electronic Hypnerotomachia.

17. Nuremberg Chronicles 
by Anton Koberger 1493

This text records the complete history of the world until 1493, including theories of its creation by God. The book is notable for its 1809 prints, taken from 645 actual woodcuts. It contains humanist historical articles, published in Latin and German, by Anton Koberger in Nuremberg in 1493.

“It was the largest undertaking in the book-making industry of its time, one of the most richly illustrated incunables ever made. The high-quality artistic woodcuts were made by the German painter and woodcutter Wilhelm Pleydenwurff and his father-in-law Michael Wolgemuth in whose Nuremberg workshop Albrecht Dürer was an apprentice until late 1489. The lasting fame of the world chronicle was mainly based on its opulent artistic style, in a unique way text and illustrations formed a well thought-out, balanced unity, complementing each other. Among the splendid illustrations are numerous cityscapes, which are of particular interest because – alongside pure fantasy vedute – they contain the first authentic views of German cities.” (Quote source)

“Notable for the way that artists, printers, designers and authors worked together as a forerunner to the modern day printing house.” (Gärtner, 1994)

18. De humani corporis fabrica Vesalius, 1543

On the fabric of the human body.The highly inventive poses of the cadavers makes this classic of anatomical publications a ghoulish favorite. The quality of the woodblock prints is exquisite.

“The Fabrica is a work of art, in all senses of the term, yet it deals with a subject, anatomy, in which illustration had played at best a minor role. Its message is conveyed in words, but also in images….Form and content, word and image, fit together so neatly throughout the book that the modern reader may easily misunderstand the novelty of the whole enterprise.” More…

The Encyclopedia by Denis Diderot and d’Alembert

32 volumes

Originally hired in 1745 to translate a two-volume English language encyclopedia into French, Diderot enlarged the scope and produced a vehicle for radical and revolutionary opinions. The Encyclopédie was published between 1751 and 1772 in 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of engravings. Diderot used a cooperative pool of 140 contributing authors in the enterprise including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Chevalier de Jaucourt, and Marmontel.

View the entire
work at this link.

Eleven volumes of fine engravings detail the process, tools, environment and people who manufactured, farmed and produced the stuff of everyday life of 18th century Europe. The Encyclopédie was highly controversial because it contained writings that were critical of the authority of the church and the aristocracy, all part of the general pre-revolutionary unrest that was brewing during the Age of Enlightenment. Both Diderot and his publisher were jailed on several occasions but the work continued clandestinely. You will see these images repeated frequently in printed and digital publications today.


engraingThe engraving process

Jan Tschichold – Two Unique Book Design Theories for the 20th Century

20. Jan Tschichold

Jan Tschichold, trained as an artisan printer and calligrapher, worked in a traditional style until he was exposed to the paintings of El Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy in the 1920’s. He immediately adopted their theories extolling the emphasis of arrangement over artistic perfection and even adopted the name Iwan in solidarity with the Russian movement. Tschichold was convinced that typography would be better served by the Constructivist theories than the traditional forms that had evolved over the past millennium.

1928 “The essence of the new typography is clarity…in direct opposition of the old typography whose aim was beauty.” 

Tschichold’s Asymmetrical Style — Liveliness with Order

“Tschichold believed that the cure for typography lay in abandoning rules, adopting [a]symmetrical setting, and the exclusive use of sans serif typefaces. A first spectacular publication of these views, “Elementary Typography”, appeared in a special October 1925 edition of the magazine “Typographic News”. This was a kind of typographic manifest and caused an uproar in the world of design. It inspired heated discussions and every typesetter came to know the name Tschichold. His theses were just as passionately adopted by some as they were rejected by others. The first positive effect came a few years later when the lavish ornaments and outdated typefaces disappeared and centered typesetting began to be abandoned” …read more from the Linotype Archive on line.

“In addition to being more logical, asymmetry has the advantage that its complete appearance is far more optically effective than symmetry. Hence the predominance of asymmetry in the New Typography. Not least, the liveliness of asymmetry is also an expression of our own movement and that of modern life; it is a symbol of the changing forms of life in general when asymmetrical movement in typography takes the place of symmetrical repose. This movement must not however degenerate into unrest or chaos. A striving for order can, and must, also be expressed in asymmetrical form. It is the only way to make a better, more natural order possible, as opposed to symmetrical form which does not draw its laws from within itself but from outside.”
From Tschichold’s Elemental Typography

The New Typography, 1928


 Tschichold’s Neoclassical Period

In 1942 Tschichold abandoned the asymmetrical style and returned to a more balanced and traditional typography. He analyzed early manuscripts and incunabula for the “secret canon” of page design which he deduced was based upon the proportions of the golden section.

Right is the cover The Form of the Book:Essays on the Morality of Good Design,reprinted in 1991 with an introduction by Robert Bringhurst.

Written between 1937 and 1975, these essays discuss every element of the traditional printed book. Tschichold ranges from its shape and size, its cover and title page, via its typeface, margins, paragraphs and section headings, through to footnotes, its index, colophon, and even the blank pages before its final covers. This is the work of a master craftsman sharing a lifetime’s experience, and it’s a delight to read.

golden section

form of the book

“In a masterpiece of typography the artist’s signature has to be eliminated.”

From the essay The Importance of Tradition.





 Redefining the Book Form in the 20th CenturyDepero Fortunato
The Bolted Book, 1927
From the 
Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto

The Medium is the Massage
Quentin Fiore, 1968


The Telephone Book, 1991
Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech by Avital Ronell    See it online

Glas, Jacques Derrida, 1974, below

Irma Boom
SHV Book, 1996

“The “Bolted book” was designed by Fortunato Depero in 1927 to advertise both his own work and that of the publishing house, Dinamo Azari. It has 234 pages, with a punched cover and a clasp made of aluminum bolts. In the ambitious initial project, a run of 2000 copies was planned. This proved impossible because of the high production costs.

The title-page design was problematic, a difficult graphic equilibrium was needed between the title of the book, “Depero Futurista”, and the publisher’s name, Dinamo Azari. According to the agreement, both had to appear with equal weight on the cover graphics.

Advertising, poems and examples of onomalingua were inserted by Depero into this machine-book, which was bound with two metal bolts and relative nuts and cotter-pins, to give users the impression that it could be dismantled at will.

The bolts, designed first in wood for the cardboard-bound editions, and in aluminum only for the steel-cover ones, were eventually all made in aluminum. A special edition of the volume was made with a metal cover; this was intended for VIPs, including none other than Marinetti and Mussolini.”

(Quote Source)

You can find out more about Marinetti here.

Mussolini, you are on your own.

Sara Angel of Angel Editions includes this book in her list of 50 Phenomenal Illustrated books:

“When The Medium Is the Massage was published in 1968 it was derided for having too few words per page and no table of contents. Yet it wasn’t long before the edition became a landmark of contemporary book design.

Unlike other illustrated books of its time, which followed the convention of having a designer create a visual layout based on a writer’s manuscript, The Medium Is the Massage not only had no manuscript, its concept was initiated by a designer. The book is a visual interpretation of the words of Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) by Quentin Fiore (b. 1920), a self-taught designer who had attended the New Bauhaus in Chicago. Using aphoristic passages of McLuhan’s writings from previous publications, Fiore presented the communication theorist’s prose on individual spreads with accompanying artwork. Influenced by the work of Italian Futurist Filippo TommasoMarinetti, English painter and author Wyndham Lewis, and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Fiore imbued the pages of The Medium Is the Massage with the energy of magazine spreads and story boards, while radically altering traditional hierarchies of images and captions, texts and illustrations.

Fiore felt that such a treatment was critical to convey McLuhan’s ideas, explaining that the book “had to convey the spirit, the populist outcry of the time, in an appropriate form.” As the designer explained, “The ‘linearity’ of the average book wouldn’t work. The medium, after all, was the message!” Fiore’s instincts paid off. The Medium Is the Massage was first published by Bantam, which issued an initial printing in paperback. (Random House released a larger hardbound version of the book.) International editions quickly followed and The Medium Is the Massage became McLuhan’s best-selling publication. McLuhan acknowledged Fiore’s immense role in the creation of The Medium Is the Massage, permitting the designer’s name to appear alongside his on the book’s front cover as a co-author.

Recommended Reading:
“McLuhan/Fiore: Massaging the Message,” in Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design

Both Derrida and Ronell redefined the relationship of content and layout in their publications.

Excerpt from The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book, John Sturrock, NY Times, 1987.
“ Inside, ”Glas” is not as other books are; there are echoes in the format of what was once called concrete poetry. Each page contains two slender columns of prose, set in different sizes of type, with a narrow corridor of white space down the middle. Let into these columns at the side are interpolations, in bold type, some of them short, some long. These are like footnotes insofar as they relate to matters raised on the page in question, but they are unlike footnotes in that they do not relate to any particular word or sentence. Mr. Derrida’s side notes float free and can be read at whatever point you fancy.

Reading ”Glas,” in fact, is a scandalously random experience, for, quite apart from when to turn aside to these insets, there is the larger question of how to read the two main columns of print. The left-hand column is a commentary or exposition or, in Mr. Derrida’s own description, a ”violent decipherment” of the philosophy of Hegel, the right-hand column a similar maltreatment of the works of the French novelist and playwright Jean Genet. On the left, Hegel’s all-embracing dialectics of absolute knowledge, dazzlingly glossed by Mr. Derrida, and on the right, the seditious, homoerotic fantasies of the jailbird-turned-writer Genet, forced for once to keep respectable company. Those who want Hegel but not Genet may read exclusively down the left-hand columns; those who want Genet sans Hegel must travel on the right. Or you can enter into the spirit of the thing and read both, hoping to discover what these two weirdly different figures are doing face to face like this. The two columns resonate off one another, we are told; they are two sounding bells with but a single clapper -the ricocheting reader. ”Glas” is so made as to impose a certain vagrancy on the eyes and attention of whoever reads it and to break us of our nasty linear habits.”

From: SubStance, Vol 20, No. 1, pp 134-136)
The Telephone Book functions more as a switchboard than a book. It magnificent design, compared favorably to Derrida’s Glas, its thorough and startling exploration of the phone, its dizzying array of citations from Start Trek to poetry, and its mix of street-talk and philosophy demands something other than a reviewer’s opinion Even the advertisement for this publication, a postcard picture of a grave with a memorial that has a replica of a phone receiver and an inscription which reads “Jesus called,: suggest some earthshaking event rather than a philosophy.

Read about Ms.Boom and her work at The Design Museum, an excerpt below.

“Born in the Dutch town of Lochem in 1960, Irma Boom studied in Enschede and, after graduation, worked for five years as a designer in the Dutch government publishing office. Since opening Irma Boom Office in Amsterdam in 1991 she has designed scores of books, as well as teaching at Yale in the US and the Van Eyck Academy at Maastricht.

Her most ambitious project to date was a book celebrating the centenary of the Dutch conglomerate SHV in 1996 to which she devoted five years of work. The first three and a half years were spent researching the subject – from scouring the company’s archives to observing shareholders’ meetings – only then did she embark on the design. She described the project as: “dream and nightmare. Dream because of the conditions which were ideal – a very good client – but nightmare because of the very long, intense process.”

Originally Boom envisaged producing a 4,000 page book. The end result ran to 2,136 pages and weighed several pounds but was devoid of page numbers or an index. “The book is a voyage,” she explained. “You find things you don’t want to find and discoveries happen by coincidence. The only clues are the dates. The book is made in anti-chronological order. It’s a book for the reader’s mind including doubts, mistakes and changes.”

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The Case for Book:Past, Present and Future by Robert Darton.

A collection of articles concerning the digital age of books and libraries.

A Condensed History of Books.